WASHINGTON, April 21, 2015 — Few issues divide Americans like abortion — and that divide is much more complex than the simple “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice” dichotomy that provides the framework for much of the public discussion.
That reality offers challenges to pro-life activists and organizations — but also opportunities.
A recent Vox survey showed widely held views on abortion. Almost half (46 percent) believe in restricting abortion in most or all cases, while 60 percent express hesitation over new, state-level restrictions. This fits with previous polls, which have shown moral opposition to abortion outpacing public support for pro-life measures.
Vox’s Sarah Kliff called several respondents and heard a range of anecdotal opinions about the issues. Taken on the surface, the issue appears at a hopeless and confusing stalemate. Reading a bit deeper, these complex views offer good news for pro-life activists and candidates.
There are three key points to take from this recent research on right-to-life issues:
1. People are thinking about life issues.
The greatest perceived enemies of the pro-life movement have been those might repeat the old refrain, “I am personally pro-life, but don’t believe it’s a public matter.” This seemed like a dodge for voters and politicians who wanted to shy away from controversy and the ire of Planned Parenthood’s network of allies.
In reality, the data suggests involved opinions that indicate involved thinking. About three quarters of respondents to the Vox poll said they held their views firmly. This isn’t an issue that people are ducking away from, but one they are ready to engage on — but perhaps not in the forums which pro-life voices have traditionally used.
2. The battlefield cannot exist solely in the policy arena.
Engaging people on their terms means going beyond the discussion of legal protections for the unborn. Legislative progress remains important, but statute follows public opinion.
Results across various polls suggest that opposition to the idea of abortion rests on the moral foundation that life is important and that once a life begins it should be allowed to flourish. If you’re a pro-life activist, you can’t ask for a better start to the conversation. It also means that there is room for discussion beyond the halls of state legislatures, Congress or the Supreme Court.
For example, Vox reveals near universal support for women to be informed, comfortable and supported when deciding whether to keep a baby. Crisis pregnancy centers and post-abortive counseling organizations offer important answers to that support by focusing on the decision point.
3. Personal stories are powerful.
Unsurprisingly, the Vox poll demonstrates that those who know someone who has had an abortion have more lenient views on what restrictions should be in place. A personal connection to an issue often shades opinions.
This is another area of the debate where the pro-life side has a potential advantage. There are a number of narratives that support pro-life stances. Personal stories about avoiding abortion generally conclude with a human being’s having a fighting chance at having a good life. As previously mentioned, crisis pregnancy centers offer important options at the decision-point, independent of what laws and rights exist. Conversely, women who regret having aborted their unborn children have even become some of the most powerful spokespersons for the pro-life movement.
Survivors – either children whose parents couldn’t go through with the procedure or mothers who did – provide some of the most compelling testimony in support of choosing life. The stories are out there, but too often lost in the shuffle.
This is no criticism of the advances the pro-life movement has made, especially over the past four decades. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s support for the right to life was considered politically risky; today not a single Republican presidential contender admits to being pro-choice.
Yet politicians and political activists who count themselves as pro-life without appreciating the nuances of the issues and voters’ opinions can be detrimental to the cause. The 2012 election cycle saw candidates who could not answer the simple question, “Why are you pro-life?”
Planned Parenthood pounced and spent nearly $12 million linking Republicans nationally to Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. Advocates for life must understand that 2016 won’t be different and avoid such self-inflicted wounds.
Abortion organizations painted these inarticulate politicians as extremists. Such messages may have been effective, but are simple to the point of vulnerability. As the polls show, Americans give the abortion issue a more sophisticated level of thought than Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List give them credit for.
By recognizing this, pro-life advocates can go beyond candidate and legislative campaigns – and wage more effective efforts to win hearts and minds.