Women's voices as evidence: personal testimony is pro-choice films

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Date: Summer 2003
From: Argumentation and Advocacy(Vol. 40, Issue 1)
Publisher: Taylor & Francis Ltd.
Document Type: Article
Length: 13,111 words

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Analysis of public policy issues has long been the core of argumentation research. Argument critics examine how arguments are constructed and what forms of proof are valid to substantiate a claim. Traditional argument theorists typically refer to facts, examples, expert testimony and statistics as proof, and personal testimony is seen as merely a supplement to, rather than as grounds for arguments. Feminist scholars and feminist argumentation scholars, however, approach the use of personal testimony differently. Stories of personal experience have found their place in a feminine style of rhetoric developed by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell (1989). In addition, other feminist scholars, such as Linda Alcoff and Laura Gray (1993), Lorraine Code (1988), Jean Elshtain (1982), Karen A. Foss and Sonja K. Foss (1994), Sonja K. Foss and Cindy Griffin (1995), bell hooks (1989), Catharine A. MacKinnon (1982), and feminist argumentation theorists Catherine Helen Palczewski (1993, 1995, 2001) and Carrie Crenshaw (1993a, 1993b, 1994) have examined personal testimony as a means of producing knowledge and understanding. Theories relating to personal testimony have emerged representing a continuum of beliefs about its value and use. At one end of the spectrum is research which suggests that all personal testimony should be accepted and valued equally, while other research rejects its use entirely. The middle ground between the two advocates careful, considered use of personal testimony and it is this position that guides the philosophical approach of this piece.

This paper seeks to demonstrate how a feminist style of argument can better explain the function of women's voices in public policy discussions on abortion. Extending on the scholarship of Celeste Condit (1990) in her ground-breaking work on the arguments about abortion, Decoding Abortion Rhetoric, I describe how public rhetoric came to reflect the private lives of women. Just as Condit, I note the importance of recognizing "the full range and complexity of individuals' lived experiences" (p. 177). I will argue that personal testimony is a valid form of evidence which serves three functions for argumentation and feminist theory. First, it expands our understanding of the interrelationship between the public and private spheres of argument. Second, it implicates a relational standard of morality, in addition to the rigid, rule-based standard of morality. Finally, personal testimony can contribute to an evolving, liberatory, feminist epistemology. Ultimately, including personal testimony will result in more contemporary, comprehensive, and inclusive argumentation theory. To explore these argumentative functions, I review existing theory on personal testimony and feminist styles of arguing. Then, I provide a brief explanation of the historical context surrounding production of two pro-life films, followed by a synopsis of two pro-choice films, Personal Decisions and Abortion Denied: Shattering Young Women's Lives. The three functions of personal testimony described above will serve as a framework for analyzing the films. I conclude with recommendations for a feminist theory of argument which accepts personal testimony as a valued form of proof.


Tensions exist between traditional argumentation theory and emerging feminist theories regarding personal testimony. Traditional argument theory views logic, reasoning and rationality as objective forms which limit the use of subjective experience. "Feminine" rhetoric, however, embraces inductive reasoning, which begins with a pool of individual examples and ultimately draws generalizations from those individual cases. Through this process, it follows that women's individual experiences may be combined to establish universal claims. To understand the range of perspectives represented in the literature it is necessary to examine traditional argumentation theory, feminist scholarship, and work which demonstrates the links between argumentation and feminist theory.

Recognition of experience as a valid form of evidence challenges traditional definitions of evidence. Evidence which incorporated personal testimony was marginalized early on in the rhetorical tradition by Aristotle, who suggested that only "the opinion of detached persons is highly trustworthy" (Aristotle, trans. 1984, p. 86). This traditional definition also appears in more recent work on argument theory. Michael Pfau, David Thomas and Walter Ulrich defined testimony as "evidence which consists of a person's statements or assertions as to what he or she thinks is true" (1987, p. 114). They concluded that, "Opinionated testimony is of little value in controversies over factual issues," and ultimately argued that, "Opinion testimony, unlike factual testimony is inherently personal and subjective" (Pfau, Thomas & Ulrich, 1987, p. 114). This privileging of "objective" evidence over "subjective" proof creates problems for contemporary argumentation theory, however. Feminist scholarship which has examined personal testimony does not present such a monolithic perspective, choosing instead to recognize the continuum of opinions regarding personal testimony which range from the blanket acceptance of personal testimony to a more skeptical, limited use of personal testimony.

Embracing the argumentative power of personal testimony illustrates a fundamental element of the feminist movement-the personal is political. Catharine A. MacKinnon, feminist jurisprudence scholar, explained the meaning of the phrase: "It means that women's distinctive experience as women occurs within that sphere that has been socially lived as the personal--private, emotional, interiorized, particularized, individuated, intimate--so that what it is to know the politics (emphasis in original) of woman's situation is to know women's personal lives" (1982, p. 535). This principle of the women's movement--making the personal political-is accomplished by means of a feminist method which embodies a unique relationship between method and truth and the public/private spheres of influence known as consciousness raising. Campbell suggested consciousness-raising recognizes "affirmation of the affective, of the validity of personal experience, of the necessity for self-exposure and self-criticism, of the value of dialogue, and of the goal of autonomous, individual decision making" (1973, p. 79).

The work of feminist theorists illuminates a way to understand personal experience as useful evidence in public argument. Campbell described the elements of a feminine style of rhetoric found in the early feminist movement: the use of personal tone, emphasis on personal experience of both the speaker and audience, and inductive reasoning. These elements create a sense of empowerment for women.

Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin contended that personal testimony is central to feminist scholarship, concluding that all personal experience is admissible in a "rhetoric of inherent value" characterized by "first-hand, concrete, lived experience" (1992, p. 344). Other feminist scholars warned of a victim mentality, suggesting that it limits the usefulness of women's experiences. Jean Bethke Elshtain argued that creating an image of victims who speak from a standpoint of moral purity risks the valuable edge of self-criticism so necessary to feminisms' goals (1986, p. 612). Linda Kauffman warned that, "there is something fatally alluring about personal testimony" (1993, p. 261). Her underlying argument is that a danger arises when personal testimony privileges individual experience without acknowledging the impact of history, society and politics.

The gap between these two perspectives on personal testimony is bridged by other scholars who maintain that the middle ground between absolute acceptance and rejection can, and in fact, must be considered. Feminist scholar bell hooks argued for the "power of voice as gesture of rebellion and resistance," which is unique and different from ordinary talk (1989, p. 14). The content of this speech enables us to develop a critical consciousness, avoiding "a shallow feminist politic which privileges acts of speaking over the content of speech" (hooks, 1989, p. 14).

Hooks also examined the relationship between the oppressor and oppressed in which, "those who dominate are seen as subjects and those who are dominated objects" (1989, p. 42). Power is found in subjects who "have the right to define their own reality, establish their own identities, name their history," while for objects, "reality is defined by others, one's identity created by others, one's history named only in ways that define one's relationship to those who are subject" (hooks, 1989, p. 42-3).

Another way of conceptualizing the subject/object relationship emerged in Linda Alcoff and Laura Gray's analysis of sexual abuse survivor discourse. Alcoff and Gray explored the struggle between theory and personal life seeking "to reposition the problem from the individual psyche to the social sphere where it rightfully belongs" (1993, p. 261). Here too, there are dangers in creating a victim mentality, where survivor speech is dependent on an expert's interpretation of one's actions to lend legitimacy to the statements. The victim mentality, which weakens the value of personal testimony, can be avoided if survivor discourse shifts from a confessional mode, which emphasizes the binary nature of knowledge versus experience, to a witnessing or testifying mode where speaking out can empower women.

The criticism of the dichotomy between experience and knowledge found in Alcoff and Gray's work is central to other feminist theory. Philosopher Lorraine Code described a Toronto hospital inquiry in which doctors (primarily males) were asked to answer questions based on their "knowledge" while nurses (primarily females) were asked to describe their "experiences" (1988, p. 64). This created a hierarchy in which knowledge is equated with a level of authority which cannot be reached through individual experience, and experience is relegated to a lower epistemological position. This dichotomy between knowledge and experience resembles other dichotomous relationships common in philosophical discussions: mind and body, reason and emotion, and the public and private spheres. These dichotomies privilege the realm of objective, impartial information in contrast with the subjective realm of personal experience which may be emotionally-laden. Code went on to describe the prevailing view in which knowledge must be "untainted by the subjectivity of experience" (1988, p. 75). This bias, and the rejection of experiential evidence, illustrate the challenge faced by feminist methods which recognize the value of women's personal experiences as evidentiary proof. Contemporary feminist theorists have questioned the existence of purely objective knowledge, suggesting an inherent ideological bias in the construction of knowledge (Code, 1988; Harding, 1991).

The connection between feminist theory and argumentation theory has become a subject for study by contemporary argumentation scholars. Work on the process of arguing, known as [Argument.sub.2] (O'Keefe, 1977), has contributed to our understanding of how argumentation works. Josina Makau provided a critique of traditional classroom argumentation, and by extension, intercollegiate debate competition, because of its emphasis on competition and reliance on empirically verifiable evidence (1992; 2001). Academic debate practices were also the focus of Carrie Crenshaw's work. Examining feminist theory incorporated in intercollegiate debate, Crenshaw (1993a) emphasized the danger in reducing feminism to a monolithic entity, and concluded that a more complete understanding of the complex set of feminist theories is needed. Additionally, Crenshaw (1994) analyzed the practice of "argument borrowing" which is reflected in theoretical elements incorporated into academic debate. Recent examples of theoretical argument borrowing include: systems analysis, critical theory and general semantics. Crenshaw recommended that argumentation practice become more self-reflexive as we borrow these theoretical constructs for use in academic debate.

Work by Foss and Griffin proposed an "invitational rhetoric" which presented, "an invitation to understanding as a means to create a relationship rooted in equality, immanent value, and self-determination" (1995, p. 5). Following the publication of Foss and Griffin's work, a special forum section was included in Contemporary Argumentation and Debate to examine the application of invitational rhetoric to academic debate, including alternative forms of debate (BrodaBahm, 2000). Although these alternatives have garnered support among some argumentation scholars, others have challenged their efficacy. Jeffrey Jarman and Kelly McDonald have critiqued proposals for alternative styles and concluded that invitational rhetoric is inappropriate for competitive debate, because it "obscures the public sphere by elevating the conversation of the private sphere" (2001, p. 206).

Other feminist argument scholars have explored the relationship between feminism and argumentation which is relevant for this project. In 1996, a special issue of Argumentation and Advocacy focused on argument and feminisms (Palczewksi, 1996). Three authors challenged elements of contemporary argumentation theory. Carrie Crenshaw (1996) critiqued patriarchal argument, which justified the view of women as "other" in Johnson Control's fetal protection policy. Michael Bruner (1996) examined the dichotomies created by focusing on feminine and masculine styles of communication and explored alternatives which avoid essentializing male and female behavior. Robert Fulkerson (1996) analyzed practices used to teach argument in composition courses. Fulkerson also examined the metaphor of argument as "war," recommending instead that argument be approached as a cooperative endeavor. All three scholars provided recommendations for new theories of argumentation which include the influence of gender.

Finally, the inability of argumentation theory to account for the usefulness of subjective perspectives is highlighted by Catherine H. Palczewski in her work on survivor testimony in the Minnesota pornography controversy (1995). In this case, the city of Minneapolis held hearings to consider changes in zoning restrictions to control access to pornography. By examining the text of the proceedings, Palczewski observed that contemporary argument theory lacks the means to recognize the value of evidence which exists at the intersection of the objective/subjective/intersubjective worlds. She argued further that argument scholars have neglected the delineation between personal accounts and generalized knowledge.

Recently, Palczewski encouraged argumentation scholars to explore the role of personal testimony in argument with this caveat, "Personal testimony is not presumptively valid, and the personal must be actively politicized if we are to avoid experience's fatal allure" (2001, p. 13). This skeptical view of personal testimony serves as the starting point for this project. Through this analysis I begin to develop a framework for valuing personal testimony as evidence. I will begin this process by examining the recent history of the abortion debate, which provides an important context for the strategies used by pro-choice and pro-life groups.


The 1973 United States Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion, had a dramatic impact on the argumentative ground used by pro-choice and pro-life forces in the United States. Pro-life forces viewed Roe v. Wade as a rejection of the absolute humanity of the fetus. Following the decision, pro-choice forces set about normalizing abortion as a part of American life, while pro-life forces actively opposed this strategy at every turn. The manslaughter trial of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, a physician who performed an abortion during a hysterectomy procedure, and the heightened controversy in congressional debates over public funding for abortion illustrated the groups' efforts (Railsback, 1984, p. 416-417). Eventually pro-life and pro-choice forces reached a stalemate over the ideographs of "life" vs. "choice." In the late 1970s both groups then began to reach out for new audiences which led to a fragmentation of arguments within each movement. The argument phase, known as fragmentation, described in Celeste Condit Railsback's (1984) work, was characterized by acceptance of a new ideological structure in which abortion was widely accepted by the public and demonstrated a public reconciliation of sorts. (1) However, the conservative political shift which occurred in the early 1980s during the Reagan administration demonstrated a renewed energy by pro-life forces to restrict access to abortion. This time, the efforts included not only Supreme Court cases, but efforts to sway public opinion through use of films as well.

The conservative political ideology of the 1980s extended into the 1990s with the election of President George Bush. Two days after Bush's election in 1988, the U. S. Justice Department filed Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, a case which gave the United States Supreme Court another opportunity to overturn the landmark abortion decision, Roe v. Wade (Lacayo, 1989). The announcement of the Webster decision on July 3, 1989 marked another pivotal point in the abortion controversy. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court granted states the right to limit access to abortion. Although Webster did not overturn Roe, it upheld a ban on the use of public hospital facilities, a ban on public employees performing abortions, and viability tests on fetuses (Greenhouse, 1989; Carlson, 1989). With states exerting increased control, the power of public opinion was also enlarged because elected officials were now held accountable to the beliefs of their most vocal pro-life constituents.

Subsequent Supreme Court decisions further eroded access to abortion. For example, in June 1990, Hodgson v. Minnesota restricted the ability of minors to obtain abortions by requiting parental notification and/or consent. Parental notification/consent rapidly became the law of the land. Thirty-three states enacted parental consent laws, and twelve had especially strict enforcement mechanisms. While the Supreme Court upheld the fundamental tight of abortion, it continued to make abortion more difficult to obtain.

One exception to the trend of United States Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s and 1990s was handed down by the Court on June 28, 2001. In Stenberg vs. Carhart, the Court reviewed the constitutionality of a Nebraska law which banned partial-birth abortions. In a 5-4 decision, the court held that the Nebraska law, as written, "imposes an undue burden upon a woman's fight to terminate her pregnancy prior to viability" (pp. 949-950). Although abortion tights activists heralded the decision, the dissenting opinions of Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy made clear their vociferous opposition to the decision. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor suggested that by following examples of laws in Kansas, Utah and Montana, Nebraska could also successfully restrict late-term abortions (Stenberg v. Carhart, 2000, p. 950). Recent Congressional action on partial-birth abortion has raised this issue once again; however, the constitutionality of such legislation remains to be seen (Kelley, 2003).

The rhetorical strategies of pro-choice/pro-life forces have, over time, been connected to the political climate of American society. The mediums used by each side to communicate its message have evolved as new forms of media technology have become available. In addition, the mediums utilized have reflected the unique standpoint of each group.


Pro-Life Films Emphasis on the Fetus

The two most well-known pro-life films, Silent Scream and Eclipse of Reason, share a common point of view. (2) Their stories are told from the perspective of the fetus. The fetus's "voice" is created through images of movement on an ultrasound screen and a male narrator's second-hand account of the fetus' ability to feel pain. The viewer's attention is focused on the events of an abortion through a narrator's voice which represents the fetus.

The Silent Scream (Nathanson, 1985), which is narrated by anti-abortion convert Bernard Nathanson, M.D., depicted an ultrasound record of an abortion in progress. He began with a brief history of the technological advances that made it possible to see inside the womb, and showed an ultrasound procedure being performed. Three components are central to the film: the ultrasound images of the abortion procedure, Nathanson's narrative, and his demonstration of the procedure using medical instruments and a plastic model of a fetus.

The most graphic pro-life film to date is the sequel to the Silent Scream, called Eclipse of Reason (Warren, 1987). Speaking roles in Eclipse of Reason, interestingly, were limited primarily to men. Introduced by noted actor Charlton Heston, and again narrated by Nathanson, the film featured scenes of a late-term abortion (those performed between the fourth and ninth months of pregnancy). Using advanced medical technology, the fetus appeared in utero. Audience members are shown close-up views of a fetus' limbs, rather than the full body shots shown in ultrasound images. Viewers witnessed a late-term abortion, graphic in detail and vivid in color. Shifting the emphasis to second and third trimester abortions allowed the pro-life movement to exploit the image of a fully developed fetus, which bears a greater resemblance to a newborn child (Lake & Picketing, 1998). The purpose of Eclipse of Reason was to argue that the fetus is human and, therefore, abortion is murder because it kills a human.

Pro-choice Use of Personal Testimony

Personal testimony is not a new phenomenon in the rhetorical strategies of the abortion controversy. Condit (1990) described the written narratives of women's experiences with illegal abortions, which were published in the early 1960s by the Saturday Evening Post. These exposes' focused public attention on abortion and the individual women's stories. One case which attracted significant press coverage was that of Sherri Finkbine, host of the nationally syndicated children's program, Romper Room. Finkbine discovered that tranquilizers she had taken during her pregnancy contained pure thalidomide, a drug known to cause terrible physical deformities in fetuses. When doctors confirmed there was a significant chance her child would suffer such deformities, Finkbine sought approval to terminate the pregnancy which, under Arizona law, was allowed to protect the health of the mother. Before the abortion

was performed, Finkbine went public with her story on the dangers of thalidomide. The resulting publicity led to an outcry by pro-life groups who threatened to sue the hospital in order to prevent her abortion. Consequently, the case became bogged down in the court system and delayed her medical treatment. Ultimately, Finkbine left the country for Sweden, where she successfully obtained an abortion. Finkbine's case, like so many other women's stories, illustrated the complexity of circumstances related to abortion: married women with children, facing the possibility of raising a severely handicapped child. The image of Finkbine's traditional, nuclear family in this case was contrary to the anti-family images portrayed by the prolife forces.

Over time, more women's stories were told in written narratives. Collections of stories have been published and include tales of illegal abortions, as well as those performed legally (Baehr, 1990; Bonavoglia, 1991; Maxtone-Graham, 1973). Other accounts told the stories of individuals who have experienced abortion from a range of standpoints including doctors who treated women after they obtained illegal abortions, those who performed illegal abortions, and individuals who were orphaned when their mothers died as a result of illegal abortions (Miller, 1993). These written narratives of women illustrate the early use of personal testimony by pro-choice groups and the emotional impact of the stories themselves.

The rhetorical situation facing the pro-choice movement in the latter half of the 1980s was shaped by the more aggressive pro-life tactics evident in the release of Silent Scream and Eclipse of Reason. Both the pro-choice and pro-life movements approached the controversy with new forms of arguments, including multi-media social documentaries. Planned Parenthood encouraged women to discuss their unwanted pregnancies publicly, in a strategy known as "speak outs" in order to counter the growing momentum of the pro-life movement following the release of Silent Scream (Cuniberti & Mehren, 1985). The events were a shift away from the earlier strategy of public relations efforts: working behind the scenes. As women came forward with their very private stories in an effort to sway public opinion the personal had truly become political. In conjunction with these public forums, Planned Parenthood released Personal Decisions in 1985, (Goodwin & Wurzburg) a video relating the stories of seven women who chose to terminate their pregnancies. Personal Decisions depicted factors to justify women's choices in a series of two to four minute vignettes which portray the situations facing seven women who chose abortion, including a rape victim; pregnant, unmarried teens; a single mother in poverty; a case of fetal deformity; an abusive marriage; and pregnancies due to contraceptive failures. The video sought to portray abortion as no longer an abstract choice but, instead, as a real issue, with very real consequences for women and their families.

The production of another pro-choice film, Abortion Denied: Shattering Young Women's Lives (Smeal & Yorkin, 1990) was triggered by the restrictive parental consent laws upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hodgson. Created by the Fund for the Feminist Majority, this film aired on the Turner Broadcast Station on December 7, 1990 (DuBrow, 1990). Abortion Denied: Shattering Young Women's Lives (hereafter referred to as Abortion Denied), was harshly critical of Supreme Court decisions that restricted the ability of women under the age of eighteen to obtain an abortion. It tells the story of 17-year-old Rebecca Bell, who died from a botched abortion, using her death to argue that parental consent laws fail and adoption is an inadequate alternative.

In the two pro-choice films examined in this work, the voices included a female narrator, expert witnesses, and women faced with unwanted pregnancies. Christina Pickles, a woman best known for her role as a nurse in the television series "St. Elsewhere," narrated Personal Decisions and Abortion Denied. Pickles identified herself as both an actor and a mother. Women who have had abortions publicly present their first-hand experiences in the films. Through the women's stories, pro-choice forces provided "a face" to go along with the arguments of why women choose abortion. This enabled the movement to accomplish two goals: (1) to expand beyond the pure experience to discuss what it means to make such a choice, and (2) to place value on the lived experiences of women in contrast to the factual evidence of an expert's research.

Understanding the evolution of strategies by both sides provides an important context for analysis of personal testimony used in the two pro-choice films selected for this project. One such area of analysis is the distinction between the public and private spheres of argument.


The public/private/technical spheres of argument developed by G. Thomas Goodnight (1982) provided a framework for many contemporary studies of argumentation, and is useful in examining the abortion controversy. I begin here with a summary of Goodnight's theory. Next, I argue that personal testimony in the pro-choice films enables the transformation of evidence traditionally found in the private sphere to an effective form of support for the public sphere. This work adds to the existing body of literature to demonstrate that the argumentative dynamics of these videos can best be understood when personal testimony is included as worthy of support for a claim.

Goodnight described argument spheres as "the grounds upon which arguments are built and the authorities to which arguers appeal" (1982, p. 216). Within the three spheres, the public and personal are most relevant to this analysis. The public sphere is described as the site of debate regarding issues of public interest, where the importance of an issue extends beyond a limited, specialized group. Goodnight argued that in the public sphere, the demand for proof is more formal. This contrasts with the personal sphere, where "Some disagreements are created in such a way as to require only the most informal demands for evidence, proof sequences, claim establishment, and language use" (Goodnight, 1982, p. 220). I argue that we must look beyond the fixed boundaries of the public/personal spheres to more fully understand how women's testimony, as illustrated in pro-choice films, may transform the public policy debate over abortion.

In Personal Decisions and Abortion Denied, the pro-choice movement recognizes, even privileges, personal experiences as they bring women's lives to the center of the controversy over abortion. Personal Decisions opens with a series of short clips that establishes each woman's unique life circumstances. What follows in each vignette is a detailed account of each woman's individual situation, told through the voices of the women and their families who were affected by the unplanned pregnancy and the subsequent decision to terminate the pregnancy. Images and discourse combine to permit viewers to both see the faces and hear the emotional testimonies. Each woman's story gives presence to a human story and the complex set of circumstances leading to her decision. Abortion Denied makes the personal experience public through a third-person narrative. The story of Rebecca Bell, an Indiana teenager who died of a botched abortion, is told by her parents.

Personal Decisions shifts the focus of the controversy away from the central character of pro-life films, the fetus. Narrator Christina Pickles sets the stage for this change by explaining: "A pregnancy can be unwanted for many reasons. The circumstances that face each woman and each family are different." Emphasizing women elevates their status, forcing viewers to consider the question, what about the women? The individual circumstances of each woman's life defies the viewpoint that knowledge can be created only when subjective experience is left behind. Each case presents a persuasive argument for a woman's right to choose. This move humanizes the issue, placing value on women's personal narratives and provides an emotional counterpart to the highly evocative pro-life images of the fetus "dangling in space" as described by Rosalind Petchesky (1987, p. 269). (3)

This shift not only moves the women's stories from the private, personal world of experience, but it also signals a shift from the prevailing pro-life depiction of women as dehumanized, unemotional objects, who are little more than body parts, to women as subjects capable of defining their own reality and naming their own experiences. The power in this politicization is found in what hooks describes as the ability to "link individual experience to collective reality" (1989, p. 110).

The complex relationship between the personal and public spheres is found in the paradox between the personal nature of the decision to terminate a pregnancy and public policy, which, in some cases, works to restrict abortions. Personal Decisions emphasizes the belief that abortion is a decision which should not be made by the government, but is best left in the capable hands of each individual woman, hence the film's tide. Likewise, in Abortion Denied: Shattering Young Women's Lives, the title emphasizes the intrusion of the public sphere into the personal lives of young women.

In these two pro-choice films, the traditionally public argument about a woman's right to choose is launched through their personal testimony from a private location of women's experience, the home. In Personal Decisions, six of the seven stories are filmed in the women's homes, often with family members speaking from seats around a dining room table. Abortion Denied opens with a montage of images, mixing objective information with subjective personal experiences. The montage depicts students exiting from a school building, Rebecca Bell's obituary, the U. S. Supreme Court building, women who died of botched abortions, a coroner's report, a teenager's bedroom, women's faces, hospital rooms, and morgues. The film also includes testimony from Rebecca Bell's parents, told from their home. Bill and Karen Bell are shown surrounded by family photos, which show their daughter, a smiling, happy, typical teenager. Karen Bell is shown in Rebecca's bedroom with other reminders of her daughter, making a bed and arranging stuffed animals.

The personal narratives when told in a private setting illustrate the complex nature of the abortion debate, where private and public arguments intersect. In addition, through the combination of a private location and personal testimony, viewers may also recognize an underlying message reinforcing the belief that these decisions ought be made in the personal sphere, and that the public sphere ought not legislate decisions about such private issues.

While Personal Decisions primarily emphasizes cases of women's private lives in choosing abortion, Abortion Denied combines the personal testimony of Rebecca Bell's parents, with material typically found in the public sphere, the testimony of experts. Weaving together the spheres of argument is a strategy found in other public health issues, as is illustrated in the work done by Valaria Fabj and Matthew Sobnosky (1995). Fabj and Sobnosky's analysis of AIDS activists illustrates the interaction between the public sphere and the technical sphere of medical experts. They argue that by examining the relationship between arguments made in different spheres of influence, argument scholars can better understand how the intersection of the private and technical spheres can transform public policy debate.

In pro-choice films, the distinction between technical experts and women's personal testimony is blurred because women speak as subject matter experts, arguing from expertise in medicine and politics. Physicians agree that pregnant teenagers face difficult choices in facing their families, regardless of the circumstances. This testimony is based on their experiences working with young women. In Abortion Denied, a Minnesota physician describes the obstacles facing teens attempting to circumvent the laws. Because there are no physicians who perform abortions in Duluth, Dr. Jane Hodgson flies in from Minneapolis once a week, "knowing dozens of women and girls are depending on her" (Smeal & Yorkin, 1990). Many of these women face serious challenges in reaching Duluth. Accompanying the images of blowing snow and icy roads are descriptions of women "who would hitchhike at 4:00 in the morning from the iron range in that kind of stormy weather." For women unable to reach health care facilities, the law "cuts them off even before they even get to the physician." These women are victims of a restrictive system which limits their reproductive choices.

Abortion Denied refutes the pro-life argument that parental consent laws will bring families closer together. Dr. Diane Brashear contends that teens are "less likely to come to you, because they don't want to hurt you." Although 50% of teens do eventually go to their parents, many girls "freeze and drift further into pregnancy until it's too late. Or like Becky, turn to the back alleys." Experts agree that teens who feel unable to tell their parents will attempt to resolve their problem alone and, ultimately, many will die.

As political activists, women criticize the paternalistic attitude of a system which makes abortion a highly restricted, even unavailable option for teens without parental consent. Many pro-choice advocates contend that parental consent laws are a transparent effort to limit access to abortions. Sue Rockne, a Minnesota lobbyist and legal consultant, agrees: "Of course, if they can stop them as teens, they can stop them as adult women, and they have every intention of it. There will be no choice for women."

Understanding the argumentative function of the pro-choice videos requires careful examination of how personal testimony contributes to the overall argument made by pro-choice forces. These films bridge the stereotypic dichotomy between the public and private spheres of influence and present experience as a source of knowledge. Women have taken the private, personal experience of terminating a pregnancy and brought it to the public policy arena.


A second, crucial argument regarding personal testimony, as utilized in these pro-choice films, is the emphasis on a relational standard of morality which is distinct from the strict, rule-based standard of morality which dominates much of the pro-life strategy. Here, we must first examine the theoretical work of Carol Gilligan (1982), Celeste Condit (1990), and Randall Lake (1986). Next, four specific elements of relational morality will be analyzed, focusing on: the role of family values, motherhood, quality of life issues, and the implications of absolute moral standards.

The moral principles which guide these particular families' decisions can be more completely understood through a feminist perspective. Recent work on human moral development has raised questions about differences in moral reasoning between men and women. Carol Gilligan (1982) examined the accepted theory of moral development found in the work of Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg concluded that the cognitive moral development of young boys indicated a higher level of maturity than cognitive development of young girls. Gilligan criticized Kohlberg's conclusion that the male standard of cognitive moral development is the accepted norm by which all moral development should be measured. Gilligan argued that men's moral decisions are based on fixed rules or principles of "justice" while women make moral decisions from a morality grounded in the concept of "care." Gilligan's work has triggered widespread debate among feminist scholars. However, on the issue of abortion, her work provides useful insight into the moral dilemma involved.

Celeste Condit (1990) references Gilligan's controversial work as a way to begin her discussion of the decision making process involved in choosing abortion. Condit conceded that men and women do make moral decisions differently. However, she argued that, in part, these differences may be explained by the difference between women and men's "historically specific situation in American society" in which the male perspective is the basis of the public moral system (p. 180). Because men are able to operate easily within this framework, their decisions appear more rational. On abortion, women and men approach the subject from distinctly different standpoints.

The dominant societal perspective views all women as naturally accepting the traditional role of motherhood. Women face a unique dilemma between this view of women and their own realities in which they consider their own personal interests, which are not accounted for in the societal perspective. Women's moral judgment involves consideration of both the dominant society's rules and their own interests as defined by their relationships to others, as mothers, daughters, and wives, while men make decisions primarily in a rule-based system. Thus, Condit concluded that the limitation of Gilligan's work was found in the false assumption that men and women share a common belief in what "counts" as moral principles. Condit argued that women's discourse about morality may reflect not an inherent trait of women for nurturing, but rather their unique standpoint in American culture which requires justifying their decisions, and weighing their own interests against a public moral system that reflects a predominantly male perspective.

Randall Lake (1986) suggested that from the pro-life perspective, a deontological system of duty and obligation guides decision making. This framework lends itself to absolute moral standards which dictate that abortion is immoral in all circumstances; thus, compromise on this issue is unethical. Pro-life films reflect this perspective that all abortions are morally wrong. Pro-choice films, however, treat each case of abortion individually. Each woman's situation is unique, which makes absolute moral laws difficult to apply. The pro-choice strategy, then, is not to refute the image of the fetus, but instead to emphasize the individual situations of women who choose abortion.

Abortion presents women and their families with complex moral choices. The range of moral criteria that may be applied to these decisions illustrates a relational standard of morality rather than a singular, rigid, moral code. One overarching moral principle which pervades the women's personal testimony in these two films is a consistent concern for the interests of all those around them. A second perspective on morality is reflected by women who reject the dominant societal view that the fetus should be given priority over women's lives. Using this moral criteria, women reach the conclusion that the choice to have an abortion should be an individual decision. A third element of morality illustrates yet another perspective, in which women reason that it is necessary to first consider whether or not they are capable of providing for a child, rather than assuming that because of their biological make-up, they are inherently equipped to care for a child. The question becomes, can the woman and/or her family provide a stable environment for the child? These different moral principles are reflected in the discussions of family values, motherhood, and quality of life found in the women's narratives.

Family Values

The first theme of relational morality examined here is the role of family values. Family units are an integral part of women's lives depicted in Personal Decisions. Traditional family values emanate from the film's images. Participants in the film appear with children, husbands, and parents. Family life is shown through day-to-day activities which portray women primarily in domestic roles making beds, hanging clothes, sweeping the floor, and picking up after children. Later, families share a meal together. The scenes depicted are not unusual; they represent an ordinary family and their activities. Although this limited characterization of women may reinforce sex-role stereotypes, the rationale for this choice may be justified. In order to capitalize on the significance of family, activities which take place in the home are a logical focus.

While these images represent a form of traditional family values, pro-choice films expand women's roles to depict them not only with husbands and children, but as complete human beings with goals and aspirations. Personal Decisions depicts women's lives in the workforce. Carol (Case Four), who became a doctor, is shown examining a patient. In another vignette, a voice-over describes Jean's (Case Six) participation in a job training program. In addition, teenagers who face unplanned pregnancies are shown at school, and later, at home completing homework (Case Two-Eileen, Case Seven-Lisa).

Further, in many cases, the women's families appear on screen describing their decision-making processes. The relationships between family members underscores the difficult decision each woman faced in terminating their pregnancy. Whether it is the support and concern demonstrated by parents or spouses, each family used their shared values and morals in making the decision in its particular circumstances.

Unplanned teenage pregnancies represent a circumstance in which family relationships are central. Two stories provide human faces adding to the statistics used to illustrate teenage abortions. In Case Two (Personal Decisions), 16-year old Eileen exits a school building surrounded by other students. She recalls thinking, "I'm only 16, I'm still a child, I mean, I'm not an adult." After rejecting the options of marriage, keeping the child, or giving it up for adoption, Eileen and her parents determined that she was left with one alternative--to have an abortion. A second story reflects the pregnancy of a young, unmarried woman. In Case Seven, Lisa sits on a porch outside her home awaiting her mother's return. This scenario reflects another complex set of circumstances, a young woman who possesses a strong belief in her Catholic faith. Here too, the powerful message is found in the narrative form, as Lisa describes her belief that a child is "a real sacred gift," while at the same time, "I still felt like I was a child, that there was a lot that I had to learn and experience before I could be a parent". In the end, Lisa's family's support helped her to arrive at the difficult decision to terminate the pregnancy.

The moral reasoning depicted in these two teen's narratives reflects two elements of a relational morality. First, both narratives describe the conflict between valuing a child and the teens' belief that they were incapable of parenting a child at that time in their young lives. Additionally, the teens' testimony illustrates the process that Condit suggests women use to "negotiate between their own interests and the public moral system" (1990, p. 179).

Abortion Denied also portrays the complicated nature of values and family relationships. The images of Rebecca Bell and her parents communicate a message of love and concern in the parent-child relationship. In this particular case, strong accountability to family led Rebecca Bell to handle the situation herself, rather than disappointing her parents. Bill Bell recounts his daughter's story to an audience of pro-choice supporters: "She made a mistake, and became pregnant, and because [of] the laws regarding parental consent, she further compounded her initial mistake with another and paid for it with her life." He stresses that even a close family relationship is no guarantee of consultation: "Becky's situation is a clear indication that as loving and as close as a family can be, there's no way you can be assured they're going to come to you in this time."

Both Abortion Denied and Personal Decisions capitalize on a strategy which emphasizes the strength of families. Through this argument, the films portray the individual cases of young women who have been affected by parental consent laws, rather than relying solely on faceless statistics which are the basis of "objective" evidence. They also co-opt the issue of family values from the pro-life movement. Now the pro-choice movement is able to show the element of care and concern found among those who support a woman's right to abortion.

Although these two films reflect important elements of family relationships, they do not directly refute the pro-life argument that abortion ends the life of a fetus. Rather, they shift the focus from the fetus to the women and families affected by an unplanned pregnancy. In choosing abortion, the women reflect a relational standard of morality where both the individual and the interests of others are a priority, rather than the deontological framework of the pro-life movement in which an uncompromising moral standard is applied.


A second relational standard of morality is found in women's perspectives about motherhood. In Personal Decisions, four of the seven stories depict women who chose to have an abortion, yet they do not reject motherhood outright. In fact, these women are mothers who recognize and endorse the societal value placed on motherhood. Each woman highlights her belief that family is a priority, while simultaneously acknowledging that they chose abortion, in part, because their other children would have been negatively affected by the circumstances of the pregnancy.

In Cases Five and Six, the two mothers face decisions impacting their ability to care for their other children because of another pregnancy. The story of Elizabeth, a Hispanic mother of three, begins with a shot of her son racing up the stairs of a decaying apartment building (Case Five). Narrator Christina Pickles describes a woman who is "trapped in a marriage with a husband who prevented her from getting an education, learning English, or even using birth control." As the mother of three children, an unplanned pregnancy in an abusive marriage presented Elizabeth with a difficult choice. Her decision to abort was not a simple one as she describes her feelings of loss. The lives of her children eventually gave her the strength to terminate her pregnancy and to strike out on her own, leaving behind an abusive husband. In Case Six, Jean's story is one of a single mother trying to break out of the cycle of poverty. Jean first appears standing on a balcony with two young daughters. She expresses her frustration at the possibility of raising another child: "I just cannot take care of this child. I'm going through enough." The impact of her socio-economic status influenced Jean's choice. Her efforts to provide for her two children and to become self-sufficient were threatened by the possibility of a third child. After careful consideration, Jean concludes, "I think it's wrong when you have a child and know you can't take care of it."

The women's testimony here provides a response to the myth of the welfare mother, often perpetuated in the conservative rhetoric of the 1990s (Contract with America, 1994). (4) This myth depicted women as having more children in order to increase their income from the welfare system. The cases depicted here contradict this myth, highlighting the women's choice of abortion as a way to avoid adding more children to the welfare roles.

The testimony of these mothers highlights the complex circumstances that surround women's choices. As mothers, they have accepted the responsibility for family and children, yet they do not necessarily accept privileging a fetus' rights over their own. Their decisions are influenced by the recognition that an additional pregnancy would compromise their ability to care for their other children. For these women, motherhood is not a simple either/or choice, rather it requires careful consideration of many factors that only they can fully understand. This requires a more complex standard of morality than one which is guided by the elements of duty or obligation found in pro-life reasoning.

Quality of Life

Quality of life issues are addressed from two distinctly different standpoints, that of a couple who must choose whether or not to abort a severely deformed fetus, and a young medical student whose contraceptive methods failed to prevent a pregnancy. In Case Three, a couple faces a moral dilemma when they discover complications in their pregnancy. Viewers meet Jeff and Margaret, a couple who married in their mid-30's. The visual images depict a happy family, as the couple plays with their daughter in a backyard swimming pool Despite the healthy birth of their first child, during Margaret's second pregnancy, an amniocentesis at five months revealed a fetus with severe deformities. Jeff describes the doctor's prognosis, "The babies very seldom live past a couple of months." Ultimately the couple decided to terminate the pregnancy. The moral question raised by the quality of life issue here illustrates another problem inherent in an absolutist view of morality. Such a standard of morality does not allow for options in the moral choices to be considered by a couple who face raising a severely handicapped child. The case of Margaret and Jeff illustrates the value of personal testimony in reasoning about moral decisions. They describe their judgment that, "If there could be no quality to a life, we did not want to have that child" and their concern about who would care for this child after they are gone. Jeff contends that this is a private decision, arguing, "If we were in Russia or Communist China I would expect the government to step in and have something to say about what I do. But this is the United States of America. We have liberty here." The couple's narrative provides a more complete understanding of the intersection between societal values and the gray area of individual morality that is unacceptable in the rule-based morality found in the pro-life perspective.

Personal Decisions also depicts the situation of women whose choices are widely criticized by pro-life groups as grounded in selfish reasons of convenience. Case Four concerns Carol, who became pregnant due to a contraceptive failure during her first year in medical school. Knowing that she could not handle a child under those circumstances, she chose to terminate her pregnancy. As an obstetrician/gynecologist, Carol describes how this event has affected the way she counsels her patients, preparing them for "the possibility of contraceptive failure." Carol's testimony counters the pro-life claim that both sexual activity and abortion are approached casually, without consideration of the moral issues at stake.

Carol's situation is significant because her story exemplifies the circumstances of women who choose abortion because their contraceptive methods fail. Many women make conscientious efforts to limit their family's size through birth control methods. When their contraception fails, they must evaluate their ability to provide a stable family environment in which to raise a child.

Although in one sense these two cases represent opposite ends of the spectrum in the reasons for seeking an abortion, the individuals involved all share a fundamental concern for a child's welfare and their ability to care and provide for them. Both circumstances involve difficult moral choices that force families to weigh the personal circumstances of their lives against the decision to terminate a pregnancy. The complicated nature of these decisions is best understood using a relational standard of morality.

Implications of Strict Moral Policies

A final theme in the films illustrates the implications of rigid moral standards in the form of parental consent laws. Pro-choice groups see parental consent restrictions as a political tool to force pro-life standards of morality on the larger population. These laws disregard the risk this poses for young women's lives. Additionally, laws based on the rigid moral standards advocated by pro-life groups are not successful in stopping abortions. Proof of this is illustrated in Abortion Denied, where a montage dramatizes the events of botched abortions as Dr. Kenneth Edelin and Rebecca Bell's parents tell about their experiences with abortion. Although they are describing events that occurred more than two decades apart, the stories are hauntingly similar. The stories move back and forth, between Edelin's testimony and the narrative of Bell's parents.

Edelin begins by describing his experience in a Nashville, Tennessee hospital in the mid-1960s, treating a young women who had previously sought an illegal abortion. She was in traumatic shock with a 105 degree temperature and when they opened her abdomen during surgery, Edelin explains, "it was full of the most awful-looking, yellowish-green puss." Edelin concludes his statement carefully, powerfully describing the impact of an event, "probably the signal event in my professional career that made me understand that such a loss of life is so useless."

In a story that reflects the same end result in the 1990s, Rebecca Bell's decision to terminate her pregnancy without consulting her parents is an all-too-common effect of parental consent laws. Her death reflects the ultimate tragedy of restrictive reproductive rights policies. Bell's parents describe the sequence of events leading to their daughter's death, which began with a doctor's recommendation to get Rebecca to a hospital immediately. Bill Bell explains that pneumonia had "virtually destroyed her lungs." Karen Bell describes the last moments of her daughter's life. "She laid (sic) and she died. I held her hand. I kept saying, 'Becky what's wrong, tell Mommy'. And she wouldn't, she just wouldn't for anything." These images convey the pain of a family torn apart by their daughter's death. Parents viewing Abortion Denied can identify with Bell's parents.

Edelin's experiences, when combined with the tragedy of Rebecca Bell's death, illustrate a unique strategy choice. These two events occurred twenty years apart, yet both demonstrate that legislation against abortion does not prevent abortion and that illegal abortion guarantees women's deaths. These two moments in history illustrate that the fight for reproductive rights continues to face the same challenges, even today. Their narratives combine with empirical examples to refute pro-life arguments that there are simple solutions to unwanted pregnancies. The two stories represent the complicated moral dilemma faced by pregnant teens.

Teenage women are victims, at the mercy of a political system which denies them access to abortion. In Abortion Denied, the expert legal and medical witnesses who appear throughout the film indict a white, male legal system for discriminatory restrictions on minors. Janet Benshoof of the ACLU suggests that, in many cases, teens "will do anything" to avoid notifying their parents. The trend of parental consent laws is presented through the visual image of a U.S. map, highlighting the states with parental consent laws and emphasizing states with strict enforcement in red. The legal experts conclude that the goal of parental consent laws is to control young women's sexuality. "These laws all want to put people in jail," Benshoof argues. Ultimately she concludes: "You're punished, even if you can get an abortion."

In Hodgson, the Supreme Court upheld parental notification and consent requirements provided that the option of a court-granted waiver also was made available. Abortion Denied contends that the judicial bypass process is not a real alternative. The courtroom is often an unfriendly environment for young women. An artist's drawing shows the courtroom where a young woman, with long blonde hair, stands before a judge's bench. In another drawing, other young women sit with their heads in their hands. The all-too-often result of the legal appeal--"DENIED"--is stamped over an artist's courtroom drawing.

The pro-life solution to unintended teenage pregnancies generally reflects two choices, to keep the child or to put it up for adoption. However, the narratives presented in Personal Decisions and Abortion Denied illustrate that when pregnant teens consider the impact of having a child on their lives, and the lives of their families they often reach a different conclusion. These teens stories illustrate that they will seek another alternative--to terminate the pregnancy, with or without parental consent or legal approval.


Personal testimony occurs in the rhetorical strategy of both pro-choice and pro-life groups, though it illustrates distinctly different functions. In their work with women who have experienced sexual abuse, Alcoff and Gray (1993) articulate two functions for speaking out which are also relevant to the discourse on abortion. First, speaking out repositions issues, such as abortion, moving it from the personal, private sphere of individual women to the public, social sphere. This type of personal testimony empowers women, enabling them to make a transition from victim to survivor. In a second, but less powerful form, speaking out may be characterized as confessional, in which the victim relies on the authority of experts to give their personal testimony legitimacy. Before analyzing the selected pro-choice films, I will briefly illustrate the confessional style as found in the pro-life films Silent Scream and Eclipse of Reason.

Confessional modes of personal testimony dominate pro-life films. Pro-life films largely silence women's voices either by limiting their participation to that of inanimate objects shown lying on an examination table; or from the waist down, with their legs in the stirrups of an operating table (Nathanson, 1985). In these roles, women are portrayed as the objects of abortion procedures, without the opportunity to express their thoughts or feelings regarding their reasons for terminating the pregnancy.

Pro-life films which do allow women to voice an experience emphasize the confessional style, a "conversion experience" where they become pro-life supporters. The discourse found here relies on absolution, which comes from an outside source who is endowed with the power to absolve or judge the woman's actions. Such a role requires stripping the woman of her individual authority, transferring it to an expert who embodies the values of objective knowledge over subjective experience (Code, 1988).

For example, in Eclipse of Reason (Warren, 1987) a female physician who directed a Women's Clinic and a clinic worker who performed abortions express pro-life sentiments by claiming ignorance of the actual events which occur during an abortion. At some point in their careers, when they began to view the abortion procedure as murder, they became "enlightened," which ultimately led to their conversions (Branham, 1991; Pickering, 1992). Nathanson absolves the women of their guilt, and charges the pro-choice movement with deceiving women about "the truth" of abortion.

Later in Eclipse, two women appear on screen to document the physical and psychological harms of abortions. The physical scene found here bears a striking resemblance to a religious confession where one's sins are heard anonymously. Nathanson introduces this segment, explaining: "Because they have suffered so grievously, we have shadowed their faces to preserve their privacy" (Warren, 1987). The technique of masking the women's faces serves two purposes. First, as Nathanson's statement suggests, these women have a need to remain anonymous, perhaps, in part, because of the shame that they feel as a result of their actions. (5) In addition, the women's shadowed faces symbolize a confession, a necessary pre-requisite for cleansing one's soul, ultimately resulting in a conversion. Both women express remorse over their decisions, recognizing that they were "guilty of murder." Each describes the negative effects of the abortion on them personally, expressing regret that they chose to have an abortion. Both circumstances described here marginalize women's experiences, privileging the role of a male authority figure.

In the two pro-choice films analyzed here, personal testimony liberates women, by providing a transition from victim of unfortunate circumstances to powerful survivors. This transition enables women to not only "name" their experience, but also "to place that experience within a theoretical context" in a way "which allow them to unite scientific knowledge with everyday experience" (hooks, 1989, p. 110). Personal Decisions presents seven women whose testimony creates a necessary discursive space to question the binary opposition between theory and experience. Rather than confessing their actions, these vignettes represent the power of testimonial discourse.

One example that illustrates this concept is a woman who was raped. In Case One, Shari, a middle-aged white woman, walks past a bar where a neon sign flashes, recreating the night in 1954, when she was raped. Shaft tells her story from her home, with images of she and her husband working outdoors interspersed with her narrative. Because abortion was illegal, Shari attempted to self-induce an abortion by sitting in scalding tubs of water, pounding on her abdomen with a meat mallet, and even throwing herself down a flight of stairs. She describes her terrifying experience with a "back-alley abortionist," wrought with unsanitary conditions and less than professional medical care. Her story represents the plight of pregnant women in the pre-Roe v. Wade era, where abortions were illegal, unsafe and often fatal.

Shari's testimony does not characterize her actions as wrong, instead she critiques a system that restricted her reproductive choice. She provides the ideological framing to her experience as she describes her "fear of being found out." She explains, "I had done something, not that I considered wrong, or immoral, or unethical, but something that was, at that time, illegal." She challenges the political system which implicitly limited her role to that of a victim.

Personal Decisions emphasizes the testimony of women's experiences, by placing them in the powerful position of a witness, which Alcoff and Gray conclude, "is not someone who confesses, but someone who knows the truth and has the courage to tell it" (1993, p. 287-8). Pro-choice films present women's testimony in two forms: as lived experiences with unplanned pregnancies and as subject matter experts who not only present facts, but who can also provide a contextual analysis from their standpoint as women dealing with a women's issue.

Women become empowered by these statements, as Abortion Denied concludes that their purpose is to prevent tragedies like Rebecca Bell's death. The first-person accounts of women accomplish the goal described by Condit, of "translating the private experiences of individual women into an argument for social change" through their persuasive appeals (1990, p. 25).

While Personal Decisions privileges the testimony of women, experts whose testimony reflects the film's central theme also participate. Although these experts represent the realm of knowledge based testimony, this testimony need not be rejected out of hand; however, as Alcoff and Gray argue, "nonsurvivors" may function as experts so long as we do not confer an "a priori advantage on the expert's analysis" (1993, p. 284). Pro-choice films rely on physicians to present "objective" evidence about women's reproductive rights; but, even the experts are engaged in the use of personal testimony. This occurs in two ways: first, the experts go beyond their statements of objective evidence to emphasize their personal experiences with women and abortions. Second, the physicians use the personal testimony of women to support their objective claims and to make arguments regarding public policy.

The expert testimony used in these films is clearly secondary to the voices of the women, both in terms of length of time on screen and in importance to the film. The combination of expert witnesses who utilize a personal tone and the women's stories present experience as a central location from which to criticize public policy. This is in direct opposition to the strategy used in pro-life films.

Personal testimony is also a powerful mechanism which can create identification between the speakers and listeners, or viewers. Felman and Laub's analysis of personal testimony in Holocaust survivor rhetoric emphasizes this connection: "For the testimonial process to take place, there needs to be a bonding, the intimate and total presence of an other--in the position of one who hears. Testimonies are not monologues; they cannot take place in solitude" (1992, pp. 70-71). The powerful message in Personal Decisions and Abortion Denied is found in the physical presence of women and their narratives which enables viewers to identify with them. Whether viewers are teens or parents, young or old, the events reflected are familiar to many women in America. Women with children from unplanned pregnancies can recall their own dilemma. Minors may recognize that they face similar situations. Men, too, may identify with the situations portrayed in these films as they are actively involved with the decisions of their wives, partners, or daughters on reproductive issues. The message is clear: unplanned pregnancies happen without regard to socio-economic status and choosing abortion is not a rejection of family values.

While this identification is partially created through discourse, the visual impact of the teens who appear in Personal Decisions also implicates the power of the human body as argument. Although this issue is outside the scope of this analysis, it raises additional questions about how personal testimony gains its power. This issue has been the subject of projects by Palczewski (2001) and by Felman and Laub (1992); however, feminist argumentation scholars should continue to examine this issue in order to develop a comprehensive theory of feminist argumentation.


Traditional argument theory restricts the scope of acceptable forms of evidence, by placing the highest value on that which is defined as objective evidence, marginalizing more subjective forms of evidence. Alternatively, many feminist theorists have recognized the unique value of subjective evidence found in the personal experiences of women, whose participation in the world of public policy discourse is limited by their lack of an appropriate "voice." The gap between feminist theory and argumentation in defining acceptable forms of evidence presents a unique opportunity to examine changing forms of evidentiary proof which can document claims.

This analysis contributes to the existing body of literature on personal testimony to demonstrate that the argumentative dynamics of abortion videos requires acknowledging the power of personal testimony as a central argumentative feature of each film.

Specifically, three arguments help us reach a deeper level of understanding about personal testimony's functions: 1) Personal testimony illustrates an argument form which can transform the focus on an issue from the private/personal sphere to the public sphere; 2) Personal testimony uniquely implicates a different standard of morality for reasoning about moral and ethical dilemmas. The relational nature of morality found in the personal testimony of pro-choice films is distinct from the rule-based standards typically found both in public policy debate and in pro-life rhetoric; and 3) Personal testimony in pro-choice films illustrates a feminist epistemology which relies on women's positions as testifier and/or witness. The lived experiences of women can be linked to scientific knowledge, resulting in the critical consciousness called for by bell hooks. "Witnessing" enables women to transform themselves from victim to survivor. Pro-life films alternatively, rely on a confessional mode of discourse by women which requires absolution by authority figures, and subsequently prevents such transformation.

Argument scholars must recognize the value of this testimony. This paper highlights the use of personal experience as a form of proof in pro-choice rhetoric. The testimony of the women who appear in Personal Decisions and Abortion Denied provides a deeper insight into the choices women face when confronted with an unwanted pregnancy. The limitations of argument theory which does not acknowledge the validity of firsthand experiences is clear. Palczewski describes the dilemma faced by argument scholars:

As critics of argument, we need to understand that the presuppositions we carry with us in the analysis of argument and evidence tend to discredit personal experiences as evidence. Such an approach is not only dangerous to those who are disempowered and who rely on personal experience as one of the sole areas of knowledge to which they have access, but it also functions as a blinder to much of the evidence presented in contemporary controversies (1995, p. 278).

Contemporary public policy debate includes a range of issues which could be served by argument theory which includes personal testimony as a legitimate form of evidence. Although research has examined personal testimony in areas such as pornography legislation and sexual abuse, argumentation scholars should also explore other areas where women's voices have traditionally been marginalized such as domestic violence and sexual harassment.

Incorporating the subjective realm of personal testimony as an acceptable form of proof is crucial to building a model of argument theory which embraces feminist thought. Campbell argued that feminine rhetoric enables women to "generalize from their individual experiences to the conditions of women in this society" (Campbell 1973, p. 84). Personal accounts, which appear in the films analyzed here, build the pro-choice argument inductively by presenting multiple perspectives of women who chose abortion, reaching the ultimate conclusion that restrictive abortion laws are unjust and that they will fail to solve the problem of unwanted pregnancies. This testimony empowers women to bring their private experiences into the realm of public discourse.

This project begins to develop a more comprehensive framework for what may be labeled a "feminist style of argument." More work is needed to identify the criteria by which we can critically assess personal testimony as recommended by Palczewski, hooks and others.

Another area of fruitful ground for study has been raised by Palczewski (2001), who challenges argument scholars to consider the persuasive power found in "presentational argument" or argument that becomes more persuasive through the combination of the human body and its discourse. The visual images of the women who appear in Personal Decisions and Abortion Denied illustrate the concept of bodies as a site of argument and would be useful material to study presentational forms of argument.

The personal testimony in Personal Decisions and Abortion Denied is used to refute the argument made by the pro-life groups that abortion is a casual choice, by shifting the argumentative ground away from privileging the fetus over women, and to co-opt the family values focus found in pro-life rhetoric. While in one sense, these films make an effective case for the use of personal testimony as evidence in a public controversy, questions may remain about their overall success in convincing the public that abortion is a fundamental right which ought to be protected.

One can question the effectiveness of pro-choice films in swaying public opinion if recent legislative restrictions and court decisions are a measure of their persuasive power. However, when polled on the issue of abortion, most Americans favor abortion rights. A January 2003 Gallup poll found that 570% of those surveyed believe abortion should be legal in "certain circumstances" and 66% believed abortion should be legal in the first trimester of a pregnancy (Saad, 2003).

Recently, parental consent laws and restrictions on late-term or partial birth abortions have been adopted. One can only speculate why pro-life groups have succeeded in these restrictions. It may be that these are seen as "reasonable restrictions" that will limit the number of abortions, while still upholding the fundamental right to abortion. In addition, even though personal testimony has the potential to be a persuasive form of evidence, when juxtaposed against the graphic visual imagery and gruesome discourse describing late term abortions found in pro-life material, its limitations become obvious.

Even with these limitations, as argument critics, we must recognize the blurred boundaries between the objective, subjective, and intersubjective worlds and the values inherent in a broader definition of argument. Personal experience in the form of women's voices must be incorporated as a legitimate form of proof if argumentation theory is to expand beyond its traditional parameters to a more inclusive theory which values the contributions that feminist theories can make to our understanding of argument in public policy discourse. This project is offered as one step in that process.

(1) The phases of argument in the abortion controversy are described in the pivotal work by Celeste Condit Railsback. Her work includes analysis from the early 1960s through the late 1970s.

(2) For more complete analyses of the strategies incorporated in pro life films see: Branham 1991 ; Pickering (1992); Lake and Pickering (1998); Pickering and Lake (2002).

(3) The persuasive success of these pro-choice videos in countering the pro-life focus on the fetus is outside the scope of this project. However, this issue has been examined in other work on the films. For this discussion see Picketing (1992).

(4) This attitude toward welfare mothers was reflected in the 1994 legislation, Contract with America, spearheaded by former House Majority leader Newt Gingrich. A more detailed analysis of the Contract with America can be found in Pickering (1995).

(5) Carole Vance (1990) describes a similar strategy used by the Meese Commission on Pornography to highlight feelings of shame.


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Barbara A. Pickering *

* Barbara A. Pickering is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Portions of this essay are drawn from the author's dissertation, "The Rhetoric of Visual Images: An Analysis of Pro-choice/Pro life Films," directed by Dr. Randall Lake. An earlier version of this essay was selected by the Western Forensics Association for presentation as a top three paper at the Annual Meeting of the Western States Communication Association in Monterey, CA, February 1997. The author would like to thank Edward Schiappa, Dale Herbeck, Cate Palczewski, Chuck Gentile and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful and supportive feedback on this essay. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Barbara A. Pickering, Department of Communication, University of Nebraska, Omaha, NE, 68182-0112; bpickering@mail.unomaha. edu.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A112087984