How to talk about abortion rights—and why

The majority of Americans side with abortion rights supporters or opponents depending on the way the question is asked. For example, perhaps the simplest and most important question is this one:

“In general, do you agree or disagree with the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion?”
            63% Agree
            30% Disagree
Quinnipiac University Poll, February 2013

If that’s the focus of the debate, Americans overwhelmingly support abortion rights. But unfortunately, that’s almost never the debate in which we are engaged. We are nearly always talking about a particular anti-abortion state law or bill. And that measure was usually designed to capture persuadable voters and put our side on the defensive.

Here’s why that works. Only about 25 percent of Americans absolutely support abortion rights and only about 15 percent absolutely oppose abortion. Below are four different ways to ask the question:

“Do you think abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases?”
            22% Legal in all cases
            23% Legal in most cases
            28% Illegal in most cases
            12% Illegal in all cases
Quinnipiac University Poll, September 2015

“Do you think abortion should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?” And if they answer “certain circumstances”: “in most circumstances or only in a few circumstances?”
            29% Legal under any circumstances
            13% Legal in most circumstances
            36% Legal in only a few circumstances
            19% Illegal in all circumstances
Gallup Poll, May 2015

“Which of these comes closest to your view? Abortion should be generally available to those who want it. OR, Abortion should be available, but under stricter limits than it is now. OR, Abortion should not be permitted.”
            34% Generally available
            37% Available but under stricter limits
            25% Not permitted
CBS News/New York Times Poll, September 2015

“How about when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest? Do you think abortion should be legal in that situation or illegal?”
            78% Legal
            17% Illegal
Quinnipiac University, August 2015

The most effective way to change the terms of the debate is for abortion rights advocates to introduce their own proactive legislation and make those bills the focus of public discussion. As you (hopefully) know by now, the Public Leadership Institute has created a whole book of proactive state and local legislation to serve this purpose. (Click here to read our Playbook for Abortion Rights.)

But there are still times when we are talking to friends or civic organizations or voters and need the most effective language to speak about abortion rights generally. How do we frame the issue in a way that captures persuadable voters?

Many Democratic elected officials have talked about abortion the way President Obama did a few years ago. He said:

"Bill Clinton had the right formulation a couple of decades ago, which is abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. I think it’s something all of us should recognize is a difficult, oftentimes tragic situation that families are wrestling with. I think the families and the women involved are the ones who should make the decisions, not the government."

This is a reasonably popular way for an elected official to deal with the issue. The problem is, it throws the abortion rights movement under a bus, contributing to the stigmatization of abortion, by saying it should be “rare” and that it’s an “oftentimes tragic situation…” There are about a million abortions annually in the U.S. and women are satisfied with their decisions to have an abortion more than 95 percent of the time. It fact, research shows that the real tragedy is when a woman wants an abortion but it is denied to her by restrictive laws or cost. So the “safe, legal and rare” formulation is both damaging and inaccurate.

There is no single best way to frame abortion rights. This is perhaps the simplest:

I appreciate that abortion is a complex and difficult issue for the individuals involved. That’s why I feel that politicians should stay out of a woman’s personal and private decision whether or not to have an abortion.

Research shows that persuadable Americans are more apt to listen to you if you empathize with them about the complexity of the issue. About 3/4ths of voters agree with the second sentence—just about everyone who is persuadable. This is a good way for a public official to answer a question about abortion and move on, but it doesn’t lend itself to the beginning of a deeper conversation.

This is a better way to start a real discussion:

Americans should have the freedom to make their own important life decisions for themselves and their families. These include decisions about whether and when to become a parent. To make these decisions responsibly, individuals need access to medically accurate information, birth control, and, when necessary, abortion.

This narrative is based around the value of “freedom,” which is America’s most deeply-held ideal. And research indicates that “important life decisions” is an effective way of engaging the minds, not just the surface emotions, of persuadable Americans. It suggests the serious nature of the discussion (much more effectively than “choice”) and conveys that women and their families are deliberate and thoughtful when making potentially life-altering personal decisions.

The most exciting new messaging research has uncovered another—probably the most effective—way of framing the abortion debate. Polls suggest that Americans have a pretty substantially different view when they think about a woman who has already made the decision to have an abortion.

By overwhelming margins, Americans believe that once a woman has decided on an abortion, her decision should be respected, she should suffer no pressure and feel no shame, and instead should feel supported by the community. Here’s an example of how to use that frame:

Once a woman has made the important life decision of whether to have an abortion, it’s not for politicians/the government to interfere. Our role is to promote people’s health and well-being, not impose our beliefs on others.

Perhaps not every debate lends itself to this approach. But whenever possible, shift the timeframe of the discussion. Let people understand that the woman’s decision has already been made (which is almost always the reality) and compel your listeners to approach it from that point of view.


New Abortion Rights Strategy in States and Localities

The battle over abortion rights legislation is being fought almost entirely at the state level, with skirmishes in localities. This will most likely continue to be true for years to come.

The anti-abortion forces understand this dynamic, have focused their resources on state legislation, and over the past five years have enacted more than 300 new abortion restrictions in the states.

How can the abortion rights movement reverse the trend? By introducing and fighting for our own proactive state and local legislation. (Spoiler alert: that legislation is right here.)

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California cracked down on fraudulent Crisis Pregnancy Centers, shouldn’t your jurisdiction?

Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) are facilities that purport to offer women comprehensive and unbiased reproductive health care information and services, but their mission is to say whatever it takes to prevent women from obtaining abortions.

“CPCs are generally staffed by volunteers committed to [their interpretation of] Christian beliefs but who lack medical training,” explains an article in the Cardozo Law Review. Nevertheless, CPC staff and volunteers, sometimes dressed like doctors and nurses, counsel and serve women as if they were medical professionals.

There are about 2,500 Crisis Pregnancy Centers across the United States, and in some parts of the country, CPCs outnumber legitimate abortion clinics by far. For example, while 95 percent of Minnesota counties do not have an abortion provider, there are over 90 CPCs in the state; crisis pregnancy centers outnumber abortion providers by almost 15 to 1. In North Carolina, CPCs outnumber abortion providers by 4 to 1. Many CPCs are intentionally located near actual abortion providers, display misleading signage, and use false advertising to deceive women about their mission.

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Can we talk about Assault Weapons?

We all know that some guns should be banned or severely restricted. Machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, silencers, grenades, and many other types of extremely dangerous weapons were essentially banned by the commonsense National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934, a law that was, obviously, upheld by the United States Supreme Court.

Recently, mass murderers in San Bernardino killed 14 and wounded 21 with AR-15 assault rifles, which are versions of the U.S. military’s M-16 infantry weapon. It is the same gun that was used to slaughter 20 children and 6 faculty members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

The question today is whether these modern assault weapons should be banned or severely restricted, just as other firearms have been restricted for the past 80 years. Let us compare how dangerous the AR-15 is compared to the guns banned by the National Firearms Act.

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A Populist Platform for 2016

Want a policy platform to suggest to a lawmaker, candidate or advocacy organization? Here is a one-page statement that reflects American values and includes economic policies that are all wildly popular:

A Populist Platform for 2016

For the past 30 years, our nation’s economic and political playing field has increasingly favored moneyed interests over the majority. As a result, the gap between the rich and the rest of America has never loomed so large. This is contrary to our fundamental American values.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • Government policies should benefit all the people, not primarily the wealthy or the special interests.
  • Our economy should offer opportunity for all, and make the American dream accessible to every family.
  • America works best when everyone gets a fair chance, everyone gives their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.
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Our goal is not to change beliefs, it is to change behavior:

In almost every jurisdiction, in order to win political battles, we must persuade at least some non-aligned or “swing” voters. We call them “persuadable voters.”

These Americans aren’t like you and me. They don’t pay much attention to public policy. They are neither staunch conservatives nor avowed liberals. They don’t often read the political news. They don’t even like to watch it on TV. In general, they’re the citizens who are least interested in politics. After all, if they paid attention, they would already have taken a side.

To political activists’ ears that may sound like an insult; it is not. The persuadables are normal people. Instead of focusing on the next Democratic presidential nominee, they are thinking about what to fix for dinner tonight, chores that need to be done next weekend, and how to pay for the kid’s braces next year. Just by reading this blog (or by writing it), we’re singling ourselves out as oddballs.

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Did Arne Duncan Just Surrender on Standardized Testing?

Days ago, the U.S. Department of Education announced a dramatic policy shift on standardized testing of public school students. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, echoed by President Obama, admitted that a Council of the Great City Schools study was right—there is too much reliance on standardized testing, hurting schoolchildren, teachers and administrators. The Education Department, therefore, published a Testing Action Plan which they claim will help states and school districts to roll back over-testing, at least to some extent.

This about-face is astonishing because Arne Duncan is substantially responsible for our schools’ overreliance on standardized tests. He made evaluating teachers by student test scores a condition of both federal Race to Top funding and his Department’s waivers from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And it was Duncan who forced states to add standardized tests in subjects like social studies, science, languages, and even physical education.

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What Can We Do About Guns?

In response to the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, President Obama said:

This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.  We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.

I assume the President was talking to the majority in the U.S. Congress because average citizens do not agree with the longstanding political choice of doing nothing. Americans favor—and have always favored—strong legislation to oversee and restrict gun ownership: 93 percent favor a background check for every gun sale; 76 percent favor registration of all guns; 77 percent favor licensing of all gun owners.

Among these policy solutions, recent evidence demonstrates that handgun licensing can dramatically reduce crime and save thousands of lives. The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research found that after Connecticut enacted a licensing law in 1995, gun-related homicides dropped 40 percent over the following decade. In contrast, five years after Missouri repealed its licensing law in 2007, there was a 25 percent increase in firearm homicides.

Gun licensing (especially if it includes a fingerprint background check) clearly saves lives and is overwhelmingly popular. It should be a top priority for gun policy advocates. And yet, we’re not even talking about it on the national level. Why?

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Pope Francis Suggests a Progressive Freedom of Religion

Last Saturday, Pope Francis delivered a homily at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Billed as an address on religious freedom, conservatives hoped and expected the Pope to praise their hard-line opposition to abortion, contraception and LGBT rights. Right wingers could not have been more disappointed.

There was not a sentence, not even a word, in the Pope’s speech that cannot be embraced by progressives. We all understand that Francis wants Catholics to follow church teachings in their daily lives. But the Pope never said that Catholics should impose their religious beliefs on non-Catholics. In fact, he said the opposite.

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What, if anything, is causing violent crime to increase?

Recently, the New York Times published a front page story headlined “Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities.” Much of the media have run similar reports, including USA Today, Reuters and Time.

First we must consider whether the storyline is entirely true. Both the Washington Post’s Wonkblog and FiveThirtyEight wrote analyses demonstrating that there is no uniform rise in violent crime across all or even most cities. According to data compiled by FiveThirtyEight, comparing similar periods in 2014 to 2015, homicides decreased or stayed the same in 23 of America’s 60 biggest cities.

Across all 60 of these cities, however, the number of homicides from January through mid-August increased from 2,963 in 2014 to 3,450 in 2015, a rise of 16 percent. And there have been undeniably significant increases in murder in Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Louisville, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Omaha, St. Louis, Tulsa and the District of Columbia.

It seems something awful is happening. Yet, we must cautiously qualify that statement. Since the late 1980s, murder, violent crime, and crime in general have all plummeted. The United States has become tremendously safer over the past 30 years—although no one really seems to know why.

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