by Steven Ertelt
August 2, 2005
Washington, DC (LifeNews.com) — There’s not much to smile about these days if you’re a leader in the abortion advocacy movement.
Pro-life advocates have won elections for the White House and Congress, state legislatures are passing numerous pro-life laws, abortion numbers are at their lowest levels in decades, polling shows support for abortion is down, and one of the pro-abortion justices on the Supreme Court is about to be replaced by someone who has written Roe v. Wade should be overturned.
Recognizing their weakened position, top officials at leading pro-abortion groups say they’re looking to retool their message.
The fight over Supreme Court nominee John Roberts is serving as a wake up call.
Prior to his nomination, pro-abortion groups were gearing up for a monumental battle. During the presidential election, they ran television commercials against President Bush telling voters re-electing him would end legalized abortion as we know it.
Surprisingly, Roberts has proved to be a very noncontroversial nominee and all indications are that he will be confirmed in a much less combative manner than prior Republican nominees.
According to a Newsweek report, a Democratic think tank called Third Way, responsible for moving Democrats to the center on gun control issues, is crafting a new message for Democrats who favor abortion to appeal to average Americans.
Pro-abortion groups are looking to change their message too, according to Newsweek, "even considering whether to abandon the framework of ‘choice’ itself."
"We’ve gotten a little far away from talking with people very much from the heart," admits Karen Pearl, interim president of Planned Parenthood.
The Roberts hearings could be the first opportunity to test a new message, but the more they press opposition to Roberts, the harder pro-abortion groups could fall. Former Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt told Newsweek that Senate Democrats are doing a poor job in standing up to a high court pick who could move the Supreme Court one vote closer to overturning Roe.
"The Democrats don’t have a lot of starch in their spines," Feldt said. "We’re going to be pushing a big boulder up a hill."
Looking back, Emory University legal historian David Garrow says abortion advocates have floundered in recent years because they’ve admitted that there’s something wrong with abortion.
When former President Bill Clinton told Americans abortion should be "safe, legal and rare," it implied abortion was, as Kate Michelman said in an interview, a "bad thing" that should be limited rather than ubiquitous.
"Once the pro-choice movement sent the message that abortion was undesirable, we were on a slippery slope headed downhill," Garrow told Newsweek.
Recognizing the perilous position abortion advocates are in, Howard Dean, a former Planned Parenthood of New England board member, has crafted a new message of tolerance.
Since his election as the head of the Democratic Party earlier this year, Dean has been saying his party welcomes pro-life advocates. He even met with officials of Democrats for Life and top pro-life Democrat lawmakers in Congress last week on establishing more official ties.
Dean has also been vocal in backing pro-life Democrats seeking elected office, such as Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey.
Strategists at Third Way are taking a different approach.
For months they have been quietly drafting talking points on how Democrats and abortion advocates can connect with voters in tossup and red states on abortion. They have been consulting with moderate Democrats, staff of pro-abortion groups and even pro-life and religious advocates.
Third Way’s focus is on voters in the middle on the abortion debate and its trying to craft language appealing not to those who strongly favor or oppose abortion, but those in the middle who are conflicted or who back legal abortion but also support pro-life legislation like waiting periods, parental involvement, and partial-birth abortion bans.
The group calls such voters "grays."
"We’ve now gotten locked in a frame and policies for 30 years that speak to the polars but don’t speak to the grays," Third Way president Jon Cowan told Newsweek.
The group plans a series of memos and a polling campaign this fall to test its strategy.
Abortion advocates have also been looking at modifying their language and they’ve turned to new Democratic communications guru George Lakoff, a Berkeley linguist.
"They found that choice wasn’t playing very well," says Lakoff, who is helping abortion advocates reframe the issue. He said he’s not surprised because "choice" came from a "consumerist" vocabulary, while "life" came from a moral one
Lakoff proposes that abortion advocates go on the attack to reclaim the term "life," labeling pro-life groups "anti-life" by, for example, claiming their policies on environmental issues result in high infant mortality rates and birth defects.
"Basically what I’m saying is that conservatives are killing babies," he told Newsweek.
A less controversial proposal would have abortion advocates taking about "personal freedom" rather than choice — a phrase that resonates with advocates of limited government, gun rights and other conservative issues.
NARAL president Nancy Keenan has also turned to pro-abortion pollster Celinda Lake for advice.
Lake has polled various catch phrases with the public and claims the phrase "culture of freedom and responsibility soundly beats culture of life."
She also tested a "prevention first" agenda focused less on abortion and more on discussing the prevention of unwanted pregnancies through contraception and the morning after pill. That approach, which pro-abortion groups are already implementing, "will help combat the widespread view that pro-choice groups are extreme and militant."
The new tactics are drawing detractors.
Connie Mackey of the pro-life Family Research Council told Newsweek she thinks the new ideas "make them look desperate."
Even abortion advocates say the new framing of the abortion debate is unnecessary.
"I don’t agree that we can never say the word ‘abortion,’" says former NARAL president Kate Michelman. "I also don’t agree that ‘choice’ is a negative word."
During the August recess and when the Senate comes back in session in September for hearings and votes on Roberts, abortion advocates will have a chance to test their new ideas. Expect to hear more about the "right to privacy" and "personal freedom" than abortion from groups like NARAL, NOW and others.
Whatever words they use, Keenan says abortion advocates have to show up ready for battle.
"This is the swing vote. This is the one that shifts the court to the right," Keenan said. "How hard do you fight? You fight."