The discourse on abortion as electoral rhetoric

Image: Sergey Filippov


During election periods, abortion is used as a political weapon, and the interest is not always in this extremely dramatic social problem.

Parties and governments compete for positions and forces that, deep down, only seek advantages at the ballot box. When Dilma Rousseff was trying to be re-elected as president, she changed her position on abortion three times to balance the rejection that her statements generated among part of the voters. When Mauricio Macri was trying to be re-elected as president of Argentina, he was dressed as a woman on social media and in the press, on magazine covers, as a criticism of his position in defense of abortion because he only sought to approach the female electorate and win the election.

It is curious how in electoral periods, the discussion about abortion occupies the public agenda and part of the rest of the time, the theme only continues even in the bubbles of social networks, seeming to be an endogenous problem of the feminist agenda. Deep down, it is a political weapon, an electoral rhetoric, and the interest is not always in the social problem, extremely dramatic, by the way, which involves abortion and concerns the whole of society.

Now, the US Supreme Court has just split the country in two, with the review of a legal decision on abortion practices that reverses legislation that existed since the 1970s. Republicans, more conservative, even tighter restrictions should begin to emerge.

Again, the electoral calendar seems to determine the agenda: the United States will have legislative elections on November 8th. All President Joe Biden is looking for now is to satisfy voters across the country, keeping an eye on the situation in Congress with the votes that will determine his support or not in the House and Senate. The professor of political history at Brown University, in Rhode Island, in an interview with the US press, explained weeks ago that many Americans do not understand the content of the laws passed by Congress and also do not associate them with President Joe Biden, nor the Democrats. According to him, “this perception may weigh on the polls on November 8”.

News agency correspondents Agence France Press (AFP), founded in 1835 and one of the most prestigious in the world, operating in 151 countries, are giving greater visibility to the progress of this abortion issue in the United States because they also understand that the agenda is relevant not only in the social and human field , but in politics and which, therefore, also affects the whole world.

Amidst the extreme polarization in US elections, where it is very difficult for a president to maintain high approval ratings, issues such as abortion have traditionally had a decisive influence on candidates' popularity ratings, as much as other issues such as inflation or the pandemic, especially in that year 2022. With the new US legislation, it is perhaps possible for Joe Biden to dribble resistance in the renewed Congress and ensure greater governance from November.

But there are problems. Anti-abortion laws, perhaps, now prohibit pregnant women from crossing state lines, or even punish those who raise money for surgeries in states where abortion bans are in place. Anyone who divulges information about clinics that practice abortion may also be criminalized, for example. Digital technology may end up serving precisely the purpose of identifying these practices, when then technology companies may be legally obliged to report on the behavior of app users, such as those that track menstrual cycles or track where people have been .

Secrets like this are already broken in the United States, it is a fact, as in cases of terrorism, or episodes involving drug trafficking or kidnappings, but the point is that with stricter legislation, the forms of identification of those who practices abortion, both in the case of women and clinics and health professionals. The United States does not have data protection laws, unlike what happens in Brazil or Europe, which makes the situation even more dramatic.

For a long time, the theme of public and even legislative discussion on abortion has always been taken up in Brazil. During the military dictatorship, the issue was treated, literally, with great taboo by society. From the 1980s until the beginning of this century, the discussion process expanded in Brazil, gaining previously unknown dimensions, mainly with social networks and media. The truth is that abortions have always been practiced, and the worst, clandestinely, putting many women at risk and leading to death, victims of the precarious conditions of the clinical service practiced in illegal conditions.

Many others were always conditioned to carry out a pregnancy even against their will in order to maintain moral standards. Gradually, the legislation adapted to the transformations of the time, until it was conceived that abortion could be legally authorized and recognized, for example, in cases where the pregnancy put the pregnant woman's life at risk, in cases of rape or malformation of the fetus when brain anomaly, anencephaly or brain damage is identified.

Even these legal devices were and continue to be widely discussed, generating controversies, involving religious dogmas, moral and ethical foundations and all kinds of argumentative reasons. On June 22 of this year, an 11-year-old girl in Santa Catarina won the right to terminate a pregnancy in court. Victim of rape, she had been prevented from performing the abortion by decision of a judge and a prosecutor who encouraged her to continue with the pregnancy during the instruction of a process, which would exceed her limit of action and whose conduct can be read, supposedly, as an undue action in the Judiciary. Their conduct is now being investigated by the National Council of Justice and the National Council of Public Prosecutors.

Brazilian voters need to be aware of the strategic use of abortion as a rhetorical electoral weapon. The theme is extremely relevant for any society, but when the public debate only gains contours in the direct relationship with the ballot boxes, certain speeches may only have an electoral function to seek the adhesion of voters, without the political class being, in fact, involved. worried about the problem. In an election numerically decided by women, in the majority, it is obvious that the abortion agenda can influence the female vote and decide an election and the candidates know this. But does anyone who takes a stand on abortion, according to the ballot box's convenience, really deserve voter confidence?

Populist rhetoric surrounds the issue of abortion in politics. A rhetoric of the pact around what seems favorable to the context of singular and non-universal audiences. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1958) defined these audience categories to which an orator addresses with a view to audience membership. They well defined it as an idealized audience, not necessarily having a direct correspondence with real audiences. Hence, the commitment is for what one imagines their consciences to be, so that they presume the values ​​and pre-dispositions of these audiences around ideas and concepts and start to defend them as their own.

It happens that in the space of an election, candidates are inevitably confronted with new real audiences, which forces them to project new private audiences as well and thus assume the flagrant contradiction of their own arguments. There is, however, a rhetoric of amnesia in those who, after a while, no longer associate these ambiguities or inconsistencies as statements by the same speaker (favoring the politician) and or, in fact, completely forget the relationship between the defense of an argument and the truth value for whoever argues around it (idem).

When a candidate goes public and reinforces the beliefs of his audience, the probability of falsifying what he says is obliterated in the popular imagination by satisfying the resonance of what is heard with what is defended and believed. In populisms, antagonisms and paradoxes are not stronger than the illusion of meeting thoughts. It does not matter, in fact, where the discursive formations that satisfy the world of ideas in the frameworks that we all have come from, as long as they, seeming valid to us, are then taken as absolute and true, real and acceptable. And this is the biggest emotional, persuasive trigger that affects us as voters.

It is not difficult to see the strategy of candidates who avoid committing themselves to a sensitive issue when they see a potential risk of losing support at the polls due to their arguments. They opt, then, for relativism and for frequent departures from a non-position, neither clear nor definitive, indicating, for example, only the importance of the theme and the need for its broad discussion. Thus, they escape commitments and electoral losses due to their positions. Aristotle, in Rhetorical Art, had already realized how much strategies like these dominated the technique of speaking to audiences and warned of the power that these strategies contained, since positions were dammed and one would not know the real position of the interlocutor because it was covered in a false relativism, in a relative skepticism or on the given assumption that the subject did not yet have a sufficiently reasoned opinion, in such a way that a less assertive position of candidates would be justified.

The arguments are worth more for their form (for their rhetoric, for words are like “water that runs between the fingers”) than for any rational logical force in them. Otherwise, they would always be used to win clashes of ideas. When discussing, when arguing, the reasons are not always anchored in a formal logic, nor should the question of the argument be verified based on the status of reason. Patrick Charaudeau, in his tradition of discourse analysis (DA) studies, when dealing with the strength of arguments, always explains that a statement, by itself, does not in fact serve a discussion and that it is, after all, the way in which a argument really seems to work as a strategic way to support an idea as being irrefutable or not, which ends up representing its strength in an argumentative situation.

The discursive scene that fits into politics has made it possible for the argumentative mode to have the frame of commitment action. When the candidate positions himself ambiguously or does not, in both situations, he turns the political discourse into an action without practical effect in the interest of a fight that the debate intends. The only effect, moreover, is the adhesion of audiences. There are no social gains, awareness achieved, transformations to be expected in the social status of the issue: abortions will continue to be practiced clandestinely, women will continue to die, or submit themselves to outrageous and precarious conditions, either in clandestine practice, or in the silencing of their suffering by taboos, apprehensions, oppressions or fears.

A discourse is a form of action, as Maingueneau conceptualized so well, supported by the French tradition coming from Michel Pêcheux, in the 1960s. From this perspective, an utterance is assumed by a subject who takes an attitude, in a given context, as a enunciation is what legitimizes the frame, vitalizing the discursive scene. Discursive formations around abortion can either express the legitimate defense of arguments or just serve the purpose of a staging with an electoral purpose. The persuasive action of some over others further endorses the public image of a candidate who properly promotes advances in what this important social struggle so much desires and needs. The use of language with a persuasive purpose around problems that at least make demands on the popular imagination is not, after all, a privilege of the abortion issue, of course.

Similar uses were made before the period of young Brazilian democracy. The geopolitics of Golbery do Couto e Silva, general of the Escola Superior de Guerra (ESG) in the 1950s, in Brazil, contained a rhetoric of the nuclear program, which served the same artifice for the image of the government. During the military dictatorship, a discursive dispute was always fought between privatism and statism, with very similar characteristics of language use (such as telecommunications, since the 1960s or 5G technology in contemporary Brazil).

In 1974, there was a major international oil crisis and works such as highways cutting through the Amazon and hydroelectric dams contributed greatly to the country's indebtedness and served as a backdrop for political discourse. Petrobras and the Amazon, like the transposition of the São Francisco River, remain political rhetorical elements to this day, which is no coincidence. In that context, of Brazil militarized not by the vote, rhetorics were used with similar purposes. The naval industry and the railroads, which also contributed to our foreign debt growing vertiginously, were objects of persuasion of the masses in the imagination for what they should build with their minds about the country and the government.

The strategy is old, heritage of a classic culture of politics since the Greeks. Its uses would be surprising if you look more closely today at the contexts of Russian politics, actions in governments such as Poland and Hungary or the many forms of domination of public opinion over the masses around the world. Around these discourses, the only thing that doesn't fit is the naivety caused by the impression that they are what they never are, except for what they want us to think of them.

*Geder Parzianello Professor of Journalism at the Federal University of Pampa (UNIPAMPA).

See this link for all articles