The abortion rights movement embraces "responsibility."

The abortion rights movement embraces "responsibility."

The abortion rights movement embraces "responsibility."

Science, technology, and life.
June 10 2005 8:27 AM

Bearing Right, Again

The abortion rights movement embraces "responsibility."

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Thursday morning, the folks at NARAL Pro-Choice America hold a press conference in downtown Washington to release a poll and a new message they swear will shake up—really, truly this time—the abortion debate. They're going to talk about responsibility.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

It's a great idea. I've hounded Democrats for years to talk about responsibility. But great ideas can be dangerous. The last time NARAL invented a new message, it came back to bite them. In 1989, when their backs were against the wall, they repackaged abortion rights as an issue of getting the government out of the family. That message won over millions of pro-family, anti-government people. But the pro-family, anti-government people thought pro-family meant supporting parental notification laws and anti-government meant opposing government funding of abortions. Pro-choicers got beaten with their own words.

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Is it about to happen all over again?

NARAL certainly has its back to the wall. According to the poll, only 22 percent of Americans say abortions should be "generally available." Another 26 percent say "regulation of abortion is necessary, although it should remain legal in many circumstances." That's a pro-choice total of just 48 percent, even when you phrase the second option to emphasize regulation. Thirty-nine percent say "abortion should be legal only in the most extreme cases," such as rape and incest, and 11 percent say all abortions should be illegal. That's 50 percent support for two hardcore pro-life positions. I've seen polls that offered rape/incest as the middle of three options, but I've never seen a poll that offered a fourth, moderate option ("regulation is necessary") and still showed 50 percent saying that didn't go far enough. These are grim numbers for the pro-choice folks.

That's where the new message comes in. Here's how the poll puts it: "We should promote a culture of freedom and responsibility by focusing on preventing unintended pregnancies and reducing the need for abortion through increasing access to family planning services, access to affordable birth control and by providing comprehensive age appropriate sex education in schools." The poll asks people to choose between this and "a culture of life that recognizes the importance of every human life," including the belief that "life begins at conception." The culture of freedom and responsibility beats the culture of life, 61 to 27 percent. The pro-choice minority becomes a pro-choice majority.

At the press conference, NARAL strategists talk up various aspects of the message: prevention, common ground, solving problems. But the numbers tell the real story. When you pose the same question without the phrase "culture of freedom and responsibility," the pro-choice advantage drops from 61-27 to 53-37. Same policies, take out the value words, and you lose most of your margin. Values rule.

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Why are value words so effective? In part because they're plastic. They mean different things to different people. This is what NARAL loved about its 1989 message, "Who decides—you or them?" Women and liberals took it as an affirmation of women's right to control their bodies. They thought "you" meant each woman and "them" meant fundamentalists. Men and conservatives took it as a rebuke to big government. They thought "them" meant politicians and "you" meant families and communities. Celinda Lake, a NARAL pollster, noted these differences 16 years ago in a focus group report.

Thursday, Lake takes the podium to present the poll and a new focus-group report. She's joined by Frank Greer, the media consultant who collaborated with her on the 1989 NARAL campaign. Different message, same pattern. A woman in one focus group interprets the responsibility message this way: "It's like your body, your decisions, your responsibility." She associates responsibility with women's rights. A man hears it differently: "It's really essential when you are talking about rights to talk about responsibilities because it's got to be the counterpoint so that people who are on the other side don't think you have the rights to everything but you don't have any responsibilities." Another man says, "The words freedom and personal responsibility are something [conservatives] use regularly. So when you bring those concepts into it, I felt like it was an argument to find a compromise with the far right."

Now, here is the tricky part. If the message means one thing to that woman, and another thing to those two men, will she get the policies she wants, or will they get the policies they want? Do the math: Of the poll's respondents, 61 percent prefer the responsibility message, but 50 percent think abortion should be banned or "legal only in the most extreme cases." The pivotal respondents—11 percent or more—don't interpret responsibility the way NARAL does. What if they want legislation that says a woman has to be counseled about alternatives and then has to go think about it for 24 hours before she gets an abortion? If responsibility wins the abortion fight, who wins the fight over responsibility?

After Lake finishes, a guy in the back of the room raises his hand. OK, he says, you're for freedom. "What's the personal responsibility part?" Lake responds by talking about sex education, teen birth control, and parental control over child-rearing. But wait—isn't parental control the rationale for parental notification, the GOP's favorite abortion restriction? Isn't it the rationale for restricting sex education and teen birth control?

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A woman behind me notices that the message in the poll doesn't mention the word "woman." She asks whether NARAL tested that word. Lake shrugs that everyone knows "personal" means "woman." But elite pollsters are never that sloppy. They choose words with care. If NARAL had felt confident enough to test the word "woman," and if that word had scored well, we would have heard about it. Lake points out that people usually respond well to the phrase "a woman and her doctor" or "a woman and her family." But that's the point: They want somebody else to be involved. It isn't the "woman" that wins them over. It's the "and."

A guy in my row asks whether the responsibility message will lead to laws that treat rape victims differently from purportedly irresponsible women—those who didn't want to get pregnant but had sex anyway. Evidently that would suit 39 percent of NARAL's poll respondents. "We're not decoupling freedom from responsibility," Lake tells him. But NARAL doesn't control whether freedom gets decoupled from responsibility any more than it controlled the interpretation of "you or them." NARAL's control goes out the window the minute the National Right to Life Committee drafts a "Responsibility Act" full of counseling requirements, waiting periods, parental consent rules, and rape exceptions.

What is NARAL's version of responsibility? On the way out, I put the question to the  organization's president, Nancy Keenan: What's the difference between making an abortion decision responsibly and making it irresponsibly? "Women make all of their decisions responsibly," she says. But if every decision is a responsible decision, then responsibility means nothing. I can hear pro-lifers hooting already. Then Keenan's communications director, David Seldin, leans in with a better answer. "Responsibility isn't something that's enforced by politicians," he says. "It's personal."

Now you're talking. For the first time, I'm hearing my reason for keeping abortion legal. I've always agreed with pro-choicers that the government is incompetent to regulate abortion. But I've never liked their aversion to moral judgments. If they'd just admit that abortion's legality doesn't make it right, or that some women take it too lightly, or that every abortion is tragic, I'd be so relieved. "Responsibility" gives me something to hold on to. It reassures me that the moral substance of life, which ought to take place in the personal and family spaces where government has no wisdom, really is taking place there—or at least that pro-choicers think it should. It's much easier to say no to legislation when conscience, not complacency, is the alternative.

Maybe pro-lifers will call NARAL's bluff with a Responsibility Act. But I think NARAL has called its own bluff already. Its latest ad proposes a "campaign to reduce the number of abortions." Its platform, as drafted in the poll, says, "The goal is to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and therefore reduce the need for abortions." That's the first time I've seen NARAL call abortion reduction the goal. Are pro-choicers serious about responsibility? Now we can measure the answer, through the abortion rate.

We can measure pro-lifers, too. At the press conference, Keenan denounces pharmacists who refuse to fill birth control prescriptions. Women who seek contraceptives "are acting responsibly," she fumes. It's a telling remark. It implies the truth: that people who don't want to get pregnant and don't use birth control are acting irresponsibly. But it also implies another truth: that it's better to avert a pregnancy or stop it early than to kill a developing fetus, and pushing a woman toward the second option by blocking the first is immoral.

You can see how all this talk of responsibility might lead both sides in directions they didn't anticipate. I'm beginning to like it already.