“Power to Decide” Who Should Get Pregnant: A Feminist Rhetorical Analysis of Neoliberal Visions of Reproductive Justice

In our current context of reproductive injustices—including but not limited to high maternal mortality rates, forced separations of families at the border, costly childcare, and limited access to abortion and family leave—the December 2017 rebranding of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy seemed timely. Renamed Power to Decide: The Campaign to Prevent Unplanned Pregnancy, they explained the change as “a vision” of their “promise to young people,” to help them “harness their power to decide when, if, and under what circumstances to get pregnant” (Ehrlich). Their website conveys the apparent magnitude of this shift: gone are the dire warnings about the societal ills and tax burdens caused by young people’s pregnancies and births. Now we see bright photographs of fashionable women, a recurring emphasis on improving “access” and “opportunity,” and calls to resist the Trump Administration’s attempts to constrain women’s reproductive decisions. 

As scholars who recently published books critiquing this organization’s inaccurate, stigmatizing rhetoric about young parents—language and imagery that (re)affirm neoliberal logics and racialized gender ideologies—we were initially excited by the change.1 Jenna, a feminist rhetorician, and Clare, an American studies scholar, came together to make sense of this rebrand. Had The Campaign finally accepted the research disputing the idea that teenage pregnancy in-and-of-itself limits young people’s potential or causes social ills (Erdmans and Black; Geronimus; Kearney and Levine)? Did the leaders now see how their teenage pregnancy prevention efforts undermined reproductive justice?

The reproductive justice framework (RJ) was developed in the mid-1990s by Black women and other women of color activists in response to reproductive injustices that the white-centered reproductive rights movement failed to address. The rhetoric of “choice” that characterizes that movement presents various reproductive behaviors and technologies as rightfully existing in a marketplace of options from which women can freely choose. This formulation constructs “women” as a category of interchangeable individuals with equal ability to make any given choice, thus “[disguising] the ways that laws, policies, and public officials differently punish and reward the childbearing of different groups of women as well as the varied access women have to healthcare and other resources to manage sex, fertility, and maternity” (Ross and Solinger 47). 

Particularly relevant to our critiques of the rhetoric(s) of teen pregnancy, the founders of RJ maintain “that ‘choice,’ as conceived by white feminists, focused almost entirely on a woman’s ability to prevent conception and motherhood” (Ross and Solinger 55). Women of color activists drew upon experiences of forced sterilization, coerced contraception use, involuntary family separation, and other reproductive injustices against their communities to argue that a focus on the conditions that structure fertile people’s reproductive lives is crucial to ensuring the “(1) right not to have a child; (2) the right to have a child, and (3) the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments” (Ross and Solinger 9). The dominant discourse of teenage pregnancy prevention interferes with the second and third of these goals and thus calls for feminist rhetorical critique.

Feminism is a political “struggle to end sexist oppression” (hooks 33). Feminist rhetoricians often analyze the ways in which dominant rhetoric(s)—or symbols that influence thought, behavior, and belief—challenge and/or reaffirm sexist oppression (e.g., Enoch; O’Brien Hallstein). In this article, we conduct a feminist rhetorical analysis by critically interrogating how audiences are prompted to accept particular ways of knowing or believing that sustain systems of domination related to reproduction. In doing so, we respond to urgent calls for rhetoricians to pay attention to issues of RJ (see recent CFPs by Novotny, De Hertogh, and Frost and Meyers and Adams) and contribute to ongoing conversations about neoliberal co-optations of feminisms (Zeisler 255; Rottenberg 4-5; Brice and Andrews 130-31). Ultimately we show that surface features of Power to Decide’s website, and their recent signature on a call for change (9to5 et al.), suggest a newfound commitment to the goals of RJ; however, we argue that Power to Decide deploys language and imagery associated with the RJ movement without fully altering its mission and work accordingly. Though they claim to be providing new material resources for low-income women to access contraception,2 they more clearly continue to focus on surveilling and changing individual women’s reproductive behaviors rather than the systemic inequalities that shape women’s lives. In revealing how neoliberal organizations adapt to challenges posed by movements that call for structural solutions to social inequality, this article also demonstrates a feminist rhetorician’s work is rarely done as institutions shift in response to critiques.

What Is Wrong with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy?

Jenna critiques The Campaign for being one of the primary institutions perpetuating the dominant narrative of teenage pregnancy: the commonplace story that depicts teenage pregnancy and motherhood as always a tragedy and burden. The Campaign uses pathologizing (and contested) statistics, visual representations of women’s bodies, and stories about young mothers’ experiences to persuade the public that young pregnant and mothering people are exigencies—urgent problems demanding “expert” responses and public concern. Patterns in visual representations and emphasis on the higher rates of pregnancy among Black and “Hispanic” women make clear that the rhetoric of teenage pregnancy continues a longstanding tradition of scrutinizing the reproductive decisions of women of color. Such rhetoric identifies women’s bodies as a site for disciplinary control, positioning them as responsible for the structural oppressions they face.

Clare critiques The Campaign’s role as counterpart to the 1996 welfare reform policy that dismantled Aid to Families with Dependent Children and instituted the more punitive and austere Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. She traces how social scientists and politicians who helped craft welfare reform became leaders of The Campaign, presenting it as a bipartisan effort to maintain public well-being via the privatized media-based management of adolescent sexuality. The Campaign’s work shifted the discourse of teen pregnancy away from pre-welfare-reform understandings that at least allowed for discussions of social inequality and wealth redistribution even as they pathologized impoverished communities and toward a neoliberal multicultural logic of intimate citizenship that foreclosed the possibility of revisiting welfare reform and its failures.

With these critiques in mind, we examine the Power to Decide website to determine whether The Campaign has ceased the damaging narratives and tactics identified in our books. 

Does Power to Decide Perpetuate the Dominant Narrative of Teenage Pregnancy?

There appears to be a concerted effort to change the ageist and sexist focus on “teens” and “girls” to a more inclusive focus on preventing unplanned pregnancies among “young people.” No longer are girls framed as “at risk” for pregnancy, a phrasing that pathologizes pregnant young women and situates pregnancy on par with disease. Rather, the “opportunities” that come with avoiding parenthood appear to be at risk; moreover, in May 2018, The Campaign did not participate in the National Day/Month to Prevent Teen Pregnancy—an event they launched in 2002 and annually publicized to rally public attention to the supposedly ruined lives of young mothers and their families (Pillow 193).

These changes imply that The Campaign believes, in line with RJ activists, that young people should be the ones who decide whether to become pregnant and/or parents; however, The Campaign does not explicitly cut ties to the teenage pregnancy prevention framework. In fact, despite evidence that the rebranding may be a response to years of activist and research-based critiques of their approach, they do not acknowledge their role in surveilling, blaming, and shaming women.3 They may have eliminated “teenage pregnancy” from their title, but their primary goal is still to “reduce teen pregnancy rates” (Power to Decide, “FAQs”),  and they reiterate the dominant narrative by maintaining that “preventing teen pregnancy helps expand opportunity . . . ” (Power to Decide, “Why it Matters”).4 The Campaign situates opportunity for good health, education, and financial stability as something that is available to those who time their pregnancies appropriately. While once girls were “at risk,” now they are missing an “opportunity.” RJ, in contrast, would see health, safety, and a good education as the conditions necessary to exercise one’s right to have or raise children—conditions that activists must fight for the government to provide (Ross and Solinger 169).   

Analysis of The Campaign’s rhetoric reveals a pattern of contradictory claims including nods to and dismissals of the tenants of RJ. For example, tallying up the tax dollars typically spent on Medicaid, WIC, TANF, and SNAP benefits associated with the unplanned birth of a child to a low-income woman aged 19 or younger, The Campaign celebrates that falling teen birth rates have “saved” the public $4 billion. The unstated premise is that public spending on these programs is bad. Yet, The Campaign writes, “Without question, we as a society must support women, prenatal care, and healthy childbirth.” Here, they appear to support a public safety net for those impoverished by our current economic system; however, in the very next sentence The Campaign writes, “But it’s also essential—and more effective for women, families, and society—to provide information and contraceptive options that empower women to decide if and when to get pregnant in the first place” (Power to Decide, “Why It Matters”). By suggesting that preventing unplanned pregnancy is “more effective” than providing support for “women, prenatal care, and healthy childbirth,” The Campaign implies that without unplanned pregnancy such supports might not be necessary. This notion masks the realities of structural inequality in which the reproduction of a low-wage, flexible labor force is necessary for the accumulation of wealth at the economy’s upper echelons (Daniel 2-12). It implicitly reiterates that pathological reproductive behavior causes welfare dependency (a narrative that undergirded welfare reform) and supports the assumption that taxpayers should not want to support young women and their children.

Similarly, The Campaign appears to respect young women’s right to have children, describing young parents as “great,” “resilient and determined” people who “create nurturing homes.” Yet, in the very next sentence The Campaign writes, “And, they frequently say, their family would have had a stronger start if they’d had the opportunity to save some money, move out of their parents’ place, and feel stable in their lives before deciding if and when to get pregnant” (Power to Decide, “Why It Matters”). “Expert” organizations like The Campaign often talk about and for anonymous, seemingly homogenous young mothers in order to persuade the public that these people cause their own problems and should not exist (Vinson 127). The Campaign uses the story of regretful, unstable young parents to prove that teenage pregnancy prevention is still a worthy mission, suggesting that these people have forfeited an unsubstantiated “stronger start” through their individual decisions to have children, rather than through the socioeconomic circumstances that shape their lives.

Does Power to Decide Position Women’s Bodies as the Problem?

Power to Decide encourages public intervention in the sexual and reproductive behaviors of young women by continuing to overly represent women’s bodies on their site. Images of young pregnant and mothering women have been crucial to creating the imagined homogenous category of “teenage mothers” as exigencies to address (Vinson 63). What is different about The Campaign’s site is that we no longer see generic icons or dejected white bodies representing “teenage pregnancy.” Historically, this staved off the critique that prevention efforts contribute to reproductive injustices faced by women of color (43). Power to Decide’s website is now illustrated by fierce images of women of color and white women who seemingly avoided the problems of poverty and educational failure The Campaign still problematically attributes to teenage pregnancy and parenthood (Power to Decide, “Why it Matters”). Men are only pictured occasionally on the site, primarily in the embrace of a woman. This rhetorical choice communicates that women’s bodies are the easiest explanation of and solution to national problems.

Does Power to Decide Eschew Public Supports in Favor of Privatized “Solutions”?

The Campaign has engaged in a public redefinition of the social safety net since its inception. The organization presents itself as the rational bipartisan private-sector solution to problems wrought by the welfare state and identifies popular and social media as a primary mechanism for its work (Daniel 86). In addition to its ongoing focus on popular media as an avenue for influencing young people’s sexual attitudes and behavior (Power to Decide, “Popular Media”), Power to Decide continues its neoliberal market-based approach of developing “innovative” privatized media technologies as a substitute for publicly funded sex education and healthcare provision. One of its new “key initiatives,” “Innovation Next,” is a competitive “accelerator program” aimed at developing “technology-based solutions to prevent teen and unplanned pregnancy” (Power to Decide, “Key Initiatives”). For example, one team attempts to “bring the clinic to the teens through a first-person virtual reality game” thereby hopefully increasing those teens’ comfort level with real clinics (Power to Decide, “Meet the Innovators”). Rather than increasing adolescents’ access to sexual and reproductive health services, Innovation Next aims to influence teens’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors, promoting market logic over programs and policies that would redistribute resources (such as stable employment, health insurance, affordable housing, paid family leave, and childcare) required to truly increase people’s reproductive autonomy.

Moreover, the only materially redistributive aspect of The Campaign’s work continues to be its focus on contraception—normalizing it through social media campaigns imploring supporters to purchase, wear, and post images of birth control-related merchandise (Le Duc) and helping to increase access to it, since April 2019, with BCBenefits:  a “contraception access fund” that provides monetary assistance for transportation and other costs related to accessing contraception (Power to Decide, “BCBenfits”). Although this laudable initiative aims to reduce barriers to accessing contraceptives for individual women, there is no information about its scale and reach. As far as we can tell, the organization retains its focus on pregnancy prevention while doing little to affect the material landscape that, since The Campaign’s founding in 1996, greatly determines a person’s “power to decide”: the domestic gag rule is in place, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) continues to punish impoverished families, and we still struggle with unequal access to the resources parents need to raise children.5

Conclusion: Pregnancy, “Under what Circumstances”?

As Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch maintain, feminist rhetorical scholarship is guided by hope—“thinking broadly and deeply about what is there, not there, and could be there instead” (145). Thus, we surface insidious neoliberal premises and highlight contradictions in the hopes that The Campaign will continue to evolve. Our analysis of the website suggests that this rebrand is likely an effort to contend with critiques from young mother activists (NoTeenShame), researchers (Cadena et al.), and scholars as well as declining rates of teenage pregnancy (Guttmacher Institute). The rebrand demonstrates how institutions can use social change rhetoric to depoliticize that language and reaffirm neoliberal logics. RJ is, after all, a political movement focused on changing the conditions that structure fertile people’s reproductive lives so that all people may exercise rights, including the right to have children in “safe and healthy environments” (Ross and Solinger 9). While The Campaign speaks to “circumstances,” their mission still narrowly focuses on ensuring that young women can decide not to have children. Through the use of social justice-related terms (“access,” “marginalized”), the deployment of arguments that affirm but then negate structural analysis (or public support), and the emphasis on positive words (“savings”) rather than on negative ones (“costs”), The Campaign masks its neoliberal vision in the veneer of RJ. Indeed, The Campaign problematically presents contraception as the means of young people’s power to determine the circumstances in which they experience pregnancy. Yet, despite a woman’s best laid “plans” about pregnancy, the social, economic, and political context around her plays a large part in the “opportunities” she has—the opportunity to expand her mind, to engage in meaningful well-paid work, to take needed time off, to sleep, to feed children, and to protect herself and her family from violence. By insisting that young people can determine their circumstances through properly regulating their fertility, Power to Decide continues to contribute to misleading rhetoric about young parents and inaccurate explanations of social inequality.

The authors would like to thank the editors and external reviewers for their generative feedback during the review process and Rebecca S. Richards for her useful comments on an earlier draft.


  1. Jenna, a feminist rhetorician, published Embodying the Problem: The Persuasive Power of the Teen Mother the same month that The Campaign rebranded. Clare, an American studies scholar, published Mediating Morality: The Politics of Teen Pregnancy in the Post-welfare Era a few months prior. return
  2. It is difficult to find detailed information about their new “contraception access fund,” BCBenefits. Women must complete an application to access this money, but it is not clear how much funding is available, what information has to be provided in order to access it, and what is done with that information. There is also no information about how many women have benefited so far or what percentage of the organization’s funding goes toward direct benefits to women. E-mails that Clare sent on November 13, 2018, to two different Campaign e-mail addresses (one from the “Questions about Your Donation” section of the website) inquiring after further details about how donated funds are used have not been returned as of this writing (Power to Decide, “Donate”). return
  3. There is evidence that The Campaign has heard activist and researcher critiques. When #NoTeenShame activists challenged the Candie’s Foundation #NoTeenPreg campaign in 2014, the former CEO of The Campaign appeared on National Public Radio to defend Candie’s from the accusation that they shame young parents and to perpetuate the idea that the dominant narrative of teenage pregnancy is based on “facts” (Vinson 124). The website’s new color scheme looks much like that of the RJ organizations, including the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and Young Women United (Bold Futures), who published pamphlets highlighting research that illustrates age-at-first-birth does not determine whether young families have successful lives. return
  4. The Campaign justifies their name change as “easier to use and remember,” suggesting that they do not really see a problem with the social construction of teenage pregnancy (Power to Decide, “FAQs”). Their emphasis on “unplanned pregnancies” is justified as an extension of national attention to “young women 18 and older” who seemingly cannot “plan” or organize their fertility in line with marketplace logics that would situate childbearing after higher education, accrued personal debt, and capital gain. return
  5. In a video promoting BCBenefits, former CEO Ginny Ehrlich appeals to potential donors’ concerns about the domestic gag rule and its defunding of health centers that are colocated with abortion providers or that discuss abortion as an option with pregnant people (Power to Decide, “BCBBenefits”). Interestingly, Ehrlich acknowledges that Title X funding is not “replaceable by private dollars alone” but immediately follows that claim up with, “so we urge you to support by donating to Power to Decide’s contraceptive access fund.” This is yet another example of the organization’s tactic of nodding to the tenets of reproductive justice (that reproductive healthcare is a fundamental right that should be ensured by the state) while undermining that tenet in the very next sentence (by suggesting, in this case, that the solution to the domestic gag rule is their privately run and funded program). return

Works Cited

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—. “Donate.” Power to Decide, 2020, powertodecide.org/donate.

—. “FAQs.” Power to Decide, 2020, powertodecide.org/what-we-do/information/faqs.

—. “Key Initiatives.” Power to Decide, 2020, powertodecide.org/what-we-do/opportunity/key-initiatives.

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Cover Image Credit: Stock photo from www.123rf.com

Keywords: feminist rhetoric, reproductive justice, neoliberalism, teenage pregnancy prevention, teenage motherhood, women’s bodies.