The Pro-Life Movement Has A Storytelling Problem

By Carrie Gress, originally published April 22, 2024, The Federalist

Women are drawn toward what is aspirational and beautiful, not scary stories of grueling and unfamiliar situations.

Many years ago, a friend visiting an Eastern European country diligently wrote several postcards, stamped them, and then dropped them in what he thought was a mailbox. It turned out to be a very elegant trash can. Of course, his postcards never made it to their intended recipients.

In the pro-life movement, messaging can often be like my friend’s simple mistake where we think we are doing one thing, but with unintended results. For decades, pro-lifers have tried to communicate rich and important truths about babies, motherhood, and the family, yet the polls and the culture continually show these efforts are falling upon deaf ears. We make impassioned and intellectually rigorous arguments, and then they dissolve in the red robes and bonnets of “The Handmaid’s Tale” activists. That one image instantly conveys more than words can say. 

What, then, do the red-robed, bonneted handmaids communicate? They say wordlessly, albeit untruthfully, that this is what the pro-life movement wants for women: forced pregnancy and fertility cults. Pro-lifers want to take away the very life most women live and supplant it with something unimaginably bad. They want your freedom.

As I explain at length in my book, The End of Woman, the left has successfully placed in the minds of most women a false binary: We either stick with the savvy, attractive, ambitious, and career-oriented women held up by the culture, or we are handmaids, doormats, silently enslaved as our bodies pump out more babies. It is one or the other. A healthy, engaging, compassionate, and compelling woman is nowhere to be found.

The left, through strong visuals, has masterfully undermined our most reasoned arguments and best compassionate pleas. Rather than finding a different way to communicate, we can often be like my father decades ago speaking to our Japanese exchange student: We just speak louder. Higher volume, as the blank face of our exchange student made clear, doesn’t mean anyone understands any better. We need a new approach.

Speaking Women’s Language

The issues we face are related to women’s opinions. This is not to say that there aren’t men out there who buy deeply into the leftist agenda. When it comes to abortion, it is still women who are encouraged to exhibit risky behavior, and they are the ones walking into abortion facilities, even if pressured by others (often other women). Men, especially young men, lean more toward conservative values, while women across the country seem immovable on the issue of life. We must learn to speak women’s language.

About a decade ago, LEGO researched why more girls were not playing with their products. They discovered “that girls wanted more reality-based toys that let them see themselves as the characters, whereas boys liked more escapist, fantasy stuff like ninjas and wizards.” Girls, when playing, saw themselves in the toys, projecting their own lives into the game. This tendency doesn’t go away as women mature.

In a positive way, it becomes the avenue through which women feel compassion for others. Many women can easily envision themselves in the place of other women. This envisioning is also behind the frequent comparisons women do with other people, particularly with other women, that can easily result in jealousy or envy, instead of compassion.

Pro-lifers know the power of stories but often are not telling the right ones. The stories we tell usually center around success stories of women who have been in very tight and gritty situations that somehow come out much better for not having had an abortion. These are great stories for fundraising. What potential pro-life donor doesn’t love to hear how his dollars could be spent to help women and babies?

But if we consider this kind of story from the viewpoint of the women we hope to target, it suddenly isn’t such a great story to tell. Women don’t want to think of themselves in an awful situation. It feels scary, unfamiliar, and enervating, instead of empowering, exciting, or inspiring. It stirs up fear instead of hope for women not in that direct situation.

What, then, could be more effective? Look around. Women are drawn toward what is aspirational and interesting, the personal and personalized, that which is fun and beautiful. Look at any glossy magazine, social media influencer, or Hollywood starlet. For better or worse, they convey the elements women want in their lives. This is the key for the Handmaids; women in a flash can envision themselves in that situation and know instantaneously that it would be just awful — no matter how silly or fictional it may be.

New Stories of Beauty and High Achievement

Not only do we need positive images to convey our message that combats the Handmaid idea, but we also need something that women want to see happen in their lives. This is also why presenting upper-class or high-status women would be much more effective than using lower-status women as models. The aspirational is powerful.

Perhaps part of our problem is that donors, who are predominantly male and therefore more abstract, want to donate to that which appeals to them instead of what appeals to intended female recipients. A simple way to move forward is to figure out the right language to connect the interested donors with messaging that resonates with women. The key is to find new visuals, new stories, and new narratives that speak to women’s minds and hearts.

For example, instead of bland images of women cuddling a child, what about images of a woman in the world with her child/children? Instead of creating yet another academic journal, why not a glossy and compelling magazine?

Instead of another well-reasoned master class on faith or family values, why not a visually beautiful home show that features healthy women and children, with a script that conveys our message?

Instead of another film related to a rough life redeemed, what about a storyline with compelling women living an attractive life that includes humor and wit, kindness, and beauty? But that can also communicate that having children is a matter of self-interest, not self-destruction.

Instead of another book arguing for pro-life principles, why not a novel with rich maternal characters in the plot?

There have been limited forays into these fields, but it is vital to convince people, particularly those who generally fund such programming, of the need. The conversation needs to be bigger than just talking about abortion. We have said precious little about the goodness of motherhood (biologically, psychologically, and spiritually) for five decades. There is plenty to say. These kinds of themes also have the advantage of filling the vacuum in our culture for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

It has been a hard season to be pro-life. If we are serious about restoring our country to a place where babies are treasured and women are provided for in the vulnerability that comes with bearing and raising children, then we must find new ways to communicate our ideas without the expectation that it can happen overnight.

The left has mastered the art of visual optics largely because that is all they have. Their ideology has to be wrapped in something compelling because it can’t stand on its own. This is why the left avoids debates and why when conservatives are admitted, like on “The View,” they are always outnumbered.

Conservatives have largely depended on the truth about women and children to be the message, while continually cycling through the debate in a kind of crisis mode. But imagine what could happen if we coupled truth with beautiful imagery and powerful messaging with a long-term view? If we had the confidence to proactively form the culture instead of just reacting to it? It’s then that the hearts and minds of women could finally be transformed and restored into something that is both beautiful and life-giving.

Carrie Gress is a fellow at Ethics and Public Policy Center. A mother of five, she is the author of 10 books, including “The Anti-Mary Exposed: Rescuing the Culture from Toxic Femininity.” She is the editor of the online women’s magazine Theology of Home. Her latest book is “The End of Woman: How Smashing the Patriarchy Has Destroyed Us.”