Rethinking and repackaging abortion rights.

Rethinking and repackaging abortion rights.

Rethinking and repackaging abortion rights.

Politics and policy.
April 22 2004 5:44 PM

Happy Endings

Rethinking and repackaging abortion rights.

Pro-choice protesters
Taking a new tack on an old argument

Abortion on demand and without apology.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

Patriarchy's got to go.

Dead women can't cook your meals.

Hey Bush! We wish your mother had a choice!


Those were some of the slogans on display 15 years ago when pro-choice activists marched in Washington for abortion rights. This weekend, for the first time since 1992, they're marching again. National television crews will be on hand. Another President Bush, this time backed by a Republican House and Senate, has just signed into law the first federal ban on an abortion procedure and the first federal law classifying the human embryo as a "child" under the U.S. criminal code. The Supreme Court, which hasn't changed since 1994, is due for a slew of retirements.

It's a crucial moment for the abortion rights movement. Don't blow it.

Marches attract passionate advocates and concentrate them in one place. They foster the illusion that you and your sisters who have filled the National Mall represent a cross-section of America. You don't. Most Americans hate abortion and don't consider themselves feminists. You need the votes of these people. Praise abortion, shout about patriarchy, and you'll alienate them for another decade.

Smart feminists understand this. In 1989, they drowned out the radicals in their ranks by filling the pro-choice march on Washington with signs, buttons, and stickers asking, "Who Decides? You or them?" This message, developed by the National Abortion Rights Action League after months of polling and focus groups, was designed to appeal to voters who considered themselves moderate or somewhat conservative. The marchers thought "you or them" meant "women or sexists." The public thought it meant "families or government." The latter interpretation cut to the heart of conservative thinking. People who had previously voted Republican because they thought the government should stay out of the family began to vote Democratic—most notably in Virginia, where they elected a black governor for the first and only time in the history of the South.


The conservative message succeeded brilliantly at keeping abortion legal. The Virginia election scared the dickens out of the GOP. President George H.W. Bush and other Republican politicians retreated from their threats to ban abortion. In 1992, the Supreme Court reaffirmed Roe v. Wade, noting (without acknowledging its obvious influence) that pressure to overturn Roe had been countered by increasingly intense "pressure to retain it." Even today, George W. Bush cautions, "I don't think the culture has changed to the extent that the American people or the Congress would totally ban abortions."

But that doesn't mean Bush and his allies can't restrict abortion in other ways. They can, and they have. They have plastered the country with laws banning Medicaid-funded abortions and requiring minors to get parental consent explicitly or implicitly (through mandatory notification) before terminating pregnancies. The conservative argument used by smart feminists to keep abortion legal—namely, that the government should stay out of the family—hasn't stopped these laws. If anything, it has reinforced these laws, since many people who consider themselves "pro-choice" view parental consent requirements and the elimination of tax-funded abortions as ways to keep abortion decisions in the hands of the family, not the government.

Throw in the "partial-birth" ban, which the conservative message likewise failed to stop, and you've got a dilemma. Pro-choice purists want to make sure teenagers, poor women, and women with late-term complications can get abortions, but their messages don't work. Pro-choice pragmatists have a message that works, but it leaves teenagers, poor women, and women with late-term complications out in the cold. Is there a way out?

Maybe there is. The purists have to accept the pragmatists' means, and the pragmatists have to focus on the purists' ends. Together, they need a message that is conservative but can undermine the restrictions countenanced by the pro-family, antigovernment argument. Look at the women left out in the cold by that argument: teenagers, poor women of childbearing age, and women with late-term complications. What do these women have in common? They're all in lousy situations for bearing and raising children. And they're all likely—or in the case of late-term complications, virtually certain—to want children later, when they're old enough, healthy enough, or financially stable enough. They don't want abortions. They want to be moms—when they're ready.


Pro-choicers have complained for years that the abortion debate is too spatially confined: Pictures and diagrams tend to focus on the fetus, not the woman in whose body it's growing. But the debate is also too temporally confined: All the arguments focus on whether the woman will get the abortion, not on what she does afterward. The abortion is the end of the story. Either she becomes a mom, or she becomes one of those women who have abortions. It sounds like two different kinds of women, and that impression drives much of the opposition to abortion rights: If you like kids, you can't accept abortion.

Republicans have long faced a similar problem on economic issues. The debate tends to focus on whether their policies help investors or workers. It sounds like two different classes of people, and that impression drives much of the opposition to the free market. But in recent years, as mutual funds and 401Ks have proliferated, Republicans have learned to dissolve some of this hostility by arguing that the worker and the investor are the same person at different stages of life. Help one, and you help the other.

This is the most plausible way to persuade the public that teenagers, poor women, and women with late-term complications should have access to abortion. The woman who gets the abortion and the woman who gives birth are the same woman at different stages of life. Not always, but often. Help one, and you help the other. You don't have to like abortion, reproductive rights, or sexual freedom. You just have to like healthy families.

Public opinion research doesn't offer much data on the effectiveness of this argument, because it's seldom expressed in positive terms. The usual family-planning message focuses on limiting families, not growing them. The difference is crucial. A few months ago, a survey for the United Nations Foundation found that messages about children and "family health" attracted much more support to international family-planning programs than messages about reproductive rights and "family planning" did. "What I like about that phrase," explained one focus group participant, is that "babies are a really good thing, healthy families are a really good thing. Instead of seeing it as a negative—control, birth control, or something like that—to think of it as a positive." The survey's analysts concluded, "Americans talk about family planning as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Advocates should do the same."

That's what pro-choice marchers need to remember this weekend. The abortion is not the end of the story. Kids and family are the story, "when I'm ready." People who believe in motherhood can be persuaded to look more favorably on abortion rights. But first, those who believe in abortion rights will have to talk more enthusiastically about motherhood.