Who Will Fight for What They Believe is Bad?
The aim of this project is to understand how and why social movement actors shift their framing of issues when they come under attack on moral grounds for the practice or right they seek to protect. Specifically, I wanted to understand how actors justify a practice when it is accused by a mobilized countermovement of violating the perceived fundamental right of another party, and why their argumentation may change over time. I specifically investigated the cases of the pro-slavery movement in the 19th century and the pro-abortion movement in the 20th and 21st centuries because in each of these cases, the actors shifted their framing of the practice in question from one of a “necessary evil” to a “positive good.” Through an in-depth analysis of numerous primary sources from various actors within the pro-slavery and pro-abortion movements, I discovered that within social movements, even actors trying to maintain the status quo (rather than establish a new right or practice) are heavily influenced by countermovement dynamics and can find their strategies confined and dictated by the terms of the debate established by the opposition. In both cases in question, the actors were pushed to justify their “right” within the realm of morality, and this pushed them to intentionally shift from an apologetic to unapologetic framing of the issue to both mobilize greater support and try to gain leverage over the opposition. Additionally, the political and cultural climates can significantly impact issue framing and the choices available to movement actors who need to adjust their rhetoric in response to their political needs and goals and the mores of society. Finally, in order to discredit the rights-holding status of the other party involved (the slave or the fetus), movement actors used both dehumanizing language to describe them and endeavored to situate the practice they were trying to protect within the context of a broader sociopolitical battle for a particular vision for society and law, thereby shifting the discussion of morality entirely away from the nature of the slave or fetus. These findings are significant for the study of social movements and rights discourse within political science as they raise questions for further study on the relationship between law and morality, the role of rhetoric in politics, and the nature of competing rights claims.