The Center for Reproductive Rights' CCO explains the origins of #StopTheSham

The top communicator at the pro choice group talks about the origins of the hashtag and communicating about a complicated topic before a Supreme Court decision.

The Supreme Court struck down a Texas abortion-access law on Monday, resulting in one of the most consequential victories for women’s reproductive health rights in decades.

Behind that legal battle was a massive effort by pro choice groups on a campaign that highlighted what they saw as rhetorical sleight of hand by their opponents. PRWeek talked with Chris Iseli, chief communications officer at the Center for Reproductive Rights, whose brainchild became the movement’s trending-on-Twitter rallying cry, #StopTheSham.

How did #StopTheSham come about?
When you get down to it, this case is about lawmakers passing laws under the pretext of protecting women’s health while in fact they did the exact opposite. It was shutting down women’s options for safe and legal abortion and other reproductive healthcare.

The Washington Post came out with an article where the editorial board talked about how these laws were a sham. Our CEO, Nancy Northup, said, ‘That’s exactly the right word. They’re sham laws.’ My communications team at the center had been talking about hashtags and graphics that go on t-shirts, placards, banners, and that sort of thing. I said, ‘What do you think about Stop the Sham?’ and it didn’t immediately take off. But we kept coming back to it, and it seemed like the most succinct way to talk about this. When we let it out of the room and into the world and saw how it functioned, people really took to it.

What was the strategy behind #StopTheSham?
The campaign has been about two years in the making. From the time the law was passed in Texas, we knew this was going to be a big case and had a high probability of going to the Supreme Court. So what the Center for Reproductive Rights did was put together a judicial strategy involving a lot of facets. On one side of the house, we had attorneys who were looking at the jurisprudence of this and how the justices have voted over time. We had a messaging effort in-house where we tested a variety of messages and approaches to see what would cut through all the misinformation out there.

When you get down to it, the sort of evil genius of the opposition has been to make it very difficult for us to explain what it is that’s wrong with these laws. On their face, they seem reasonable and they take time to explain. Meanwhile, in this day and age, people’s attention spans and news cycles being what they are, people have already moved on.

So we approached the issue from different angles. In addition to what you saw at the rally and around the court case itself, we’ve done a lot of work in the media and behind the scenes. Also we’ve done a lot of work with some high-profile people. For example, there was a series of videos we did that elevated the stories of people affected by abortion-rights restrictions by telling them through the voices of Amy Brenneman and others.

Did the vacancy on the Supreme Court affect your campaign?
The vacancy didn’t affect the campaign that much because [late Associate Justice Antonin] Scalia was never going to be a vote in our favor. It’s no secret [Associate Justice] Anthony Kennedy was going to be a critical vote in this. So we paid particular attention to what he would be responsive to. But there was a lot of education needed around the issue generally. And I think that, especially in the opinion that came from Justice [Stephen] Breyer, you can see that long process of education behind the hashtag, the signs, banners, and all that, paid off. The court clearly got what’s at heart here and made its decision based on the facts and evidence rather than the rhetoric.

What implications does this have for similar laws across the U.S.?
This ruling is specifically about Texas, so it doesn’t have an immediate effect. But the Court has clarified its standard with respect to abortion in such a way that a lot of those laws have to be presumed unconstitutional based on what the Court has said. Also, what it said is that a variety of regulations [taken] together have a cumulative effect and contribute to burden women trying to get these services. The opposition has tried to chip away at a woman’s right to abortion. You pass a restriction here and a regulation there and ultimately, that results in reduced access and availability. It’s very important that the state said you have to take all these restrictions together and these laws have to be based on evidence. You can’t just claim they’re good for women.

Who else makes up this coalition?
My team and the teams from Planned Parenthood, In Our Own Voice, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health — a whole panoply of reproductive rights, health, and justice groups came together to talk about messaging to figure out who would handle what.

[We] work together on reproductive rights generally, and this case brought that coalition together certainly more than I’ve seen in my five years at the center. Sometimes it takes a moment like this to galvanize people and bring them together.

We instituted a war room that has been in effect since the case was granted. It was operating anywhere from two days a week to every day in the weeks leading up the oral arguments and the court’s decision.

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