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The challenge of turning pro-choice Americans into pro-choice voters

To protect reproductive rights after Roe, advocates will need to mobilize people with real reservations about abortion.

Protestors at a March to Defend US Abortion Rights in London hold signs. One reads “Safe + legal abortion = pro-life.” Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images
Rachel M. Cohen is a senior reporter for Vox covering social policy. She focuses on housing, schools, labor, criminal justice, and abortion rights, and has been reporting on these issues for more than a decade.

Three weeks after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision, campaign staffers, donors, and ordinary people are wondering how, exactly, the political landscape might change.

For nearly 50 years, the parameters of Roe v. Wade defined the terms of the abortion debate. Reproductive rights supporters focused on preserving access to the procedure, and fought back against restrictions that could be challenged as unconstitutional. While some anti-abortion leaders wanted to ban the practice outright, the federal backstop of Roe meant they had to focus their energies on making it practically difficult to end a pregnancy.

The end of Roe means that fight has changed. It’s no longer about just passing or surmounting barriers like mandatory waiting periods or restrictions on government funding. The Dobbs era will entail fighting over things that previously weren’t realistic threats, like outright bans and granting legal rights to embryos.

Given this, how should pro-choice candidates, elected officials, and advocates make the best case for abortion access in a world where there is no longer a nationwide right, and in an environment where many pro-choice Americans have deep reservations about abortion?

The groups that worked to overturn Roe are facing their own version of these questions. Some writers have already started to call for more reliance on persuasion tactics; it’s time, they say, to fight for more family-friendly policies, both on the merits and to win over voters in the muddled middle — entreaties that many abortion rights supporters view with rightful skepticism.

But the anti-abortion movement is, for now, winning, making these messaging questions more urgent for supporters of reproductive rights. At least three national surveys have shown majorities of Americans favor banning abortion after 15 weeks, even as those same respondents said they wanted to see Roe upheld. Republicans are already talking about voting on a 15-week ban if they retake Congress in November.

Over the last decade, progressives have rallied for reproductive rights in part by speaking more openly and unapologetically about abortion. Democratic leaders joining Republicans in stigmatizing the procedure, activists maintain, is a major reason women’s rights are being rolled back today.

That advocacy work is not over, but it is more complicated in light of Roe’s overturn, which has left the movement with new political battlefields to navigate. Activists now have to figure out both how to mobilize the diverse pro-choice coalition — and to keep it together.

The coming state battles

Next month, in Kansas, will be the first time abortion rights are tested on the ballot post-Dobbs. In 2019, the state supreme court ruled that Kansas’s constitution protects the right to an abortion. A proposed amendment would explicitly remove that right, opening the way for the legislature to restrict or ban the procedure. Republicans will likely outnumber Democrats at the polls by a 2:1 margin.

To defeat the ballot measure, supporters will have to find a way to depolarize the issue as much as possible, and that might mean avoiding attacking institutions and politicians that Republicans support.

Ethan Winter, a Data for Progress pollster who has experience working on state ballot initiatives and plans to poll abortion-related measures over the next few months, said that when Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey were law, it made more sense to think about abortion politics on a national level.

“In the post-Roe era, we have to think about 50 different electorates, which means you’re assembling a pro-choice coalition that could look different in each state,” he told Vox.

Americans tend not to like big, disruptive changes, and rolling back a legal right that’s existed for 50 years is a very big, disruptive change. It’s why, researchers believe, they observe a “status quo bias” when voters weigh in on ballot initiatives, often rejecting proposals — including abortion-related ones — they otherwise tell pollsters they support.

Winter thinks the tendency for voters to resist big change is good news for reproductive rights supporters this cycle, who are fighting against ballot initiatives in Kansas and Montana that would further restrict access to abortion.

“The pro-choice movement is on the ‘no’ side, and when you’re on the no side, and you are talking about preserving the status quo, you can win those fights even in deeply red states,” he said. “You can make an argument to conservative voters that you need to vote against this amendment because it represents a radical change.”

This doesn’t mean abortion rights advocates could never win affirmative ballot measures — progressives have won measures in red states to raise the minimum wage and expand Medicaid, for example. But in those cases, campaigners worked to depict the implementation of those proposals as minimally disruptive to the status quo.

The task of keeping the pro-choice coalition intact

Pollsters say there are arguments in favor of abortion rights that can resonate across the ideological spectrum. The most popular messages, researchers find again and again, are those that emphasize freedom from government control, and those that stress that abortion should be a decision between a woman and her doctor.

For the past decade, these concepts haven’t always been prominent in abortion access debates. As the procedure came under increasing attack nationwide, reproductive rights supporters mobilized Democrats and allies to stand up more forcefully for abortion access, and challenged the idea that some abortions — like in the event of rape or incest — are more worthy than others.

Rather than accept the “safe, legal, and rare” messaging popularized by Bill Clinton in the 1990s, celebrities, lawmakers, and activists have encouraged amplifying abortion stories, even, or especially, less sympathetic ones. Activists have also emphasized that messages about a “woman and her doctor” could diminish the reproductive agency of the pregnant woman herself. As feminist writer Rebecca Traister put it earlier this week, “It’s at the heart of the attitude that a person who can be pregnant... cannot simply get access to that procedure by their own damn self, without consultation or permission from anyone.”

The issue now is that, although a majority of American voters have repeatedly said they believe Roe should be upheld, roughly one-third of that majority personally opposes abortion. Those who believe abortion should be legal only in some cases primarily cite rape, incest, or a threat to a woman’s life.

Navigator Research, a group that works to provide messaging guidance to progressives, including Planned Parenthood, has conducted a few surveys on reproductive rights over the last few months: one in April before the leak of the draft Dobbs decision, one in May after it, and one following the Supreme Court’s final ruling. They found that respondents found a few consequences of the ruling especially concerning and believable: that women would have to seek unsafe abortions and that victims of rape and incest would be forced to give birth.

These ideological tensions between reproductive activists and other self-identified pro-choice people were not of huge concern when Roe was the law and defending the decision was a collective rallying point. But it makes building a coalition in a post-Roe world a more delicate balance.

Some groups are already thinking through these questions of persuasion. Heidi Sieck, the CEO of #VOTEPROCHOICE, a group that started in 2016 and focuses on electing down-ballot candidates, said a lot of her work is helping people understand how every public office has a role to play in protecting reproductive freedom, something she believes has been obscured by the heavy focus on federal-level rights in the Roe era.

“What happened in the context of political mobilization was the Democratic Party abdicated its responsibility around abortion to a few feminist organizations like Feminist Majority, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood,” she said. “And those groups were only speaking to those voters who prioritize abortion as their number one mobilizing issue, and among the 80 percent of the pro-choice majority, that’s only about 20 percent.”

Sieck said the problem is there have been large numbers of voters who didn’t want Roe overturned, but who have not felt heard by the Democratic Party, or their local officials or reproductive rights groups. “The groups are wonderful but they only resonate with a small portion” of the coalition, she said, adding that the brands of Planned Parenthood and NARAL don’t connect with a lot of people “because it’s so pink and feminine and doesn’t meet a lot of people where they are.”

Men4Choice, another relatively young group that focuses on educating and mobilizing pro-choice men off the sidelines, has been thinking through ways to empower men to engage as “stakeholders” on abortion rights, not just occasional “beneficiaries.”

“Pro-choice men don’t know how or if they’re allowed to talk about this issue, they don’t see an entry point for themselves in the movement, and so all of our work has been on engaging men, educating them, and we’re helping to give them a sense of ownership,” co-founder Oren Jacobson told Vox. “One of the things we say over and over again is this isn’t just a fight about abortion, but it’s a fight about freedom and power and control.”

Bryan Bennett, a pollster with Navigator, says abortion is an issue where Democrats should be going on the offensive, and he encourages candidates and elected officials to “meet people where they are” and emphasize freedom language. “Many people associate ‘freedom’ with Republican values, but in this particular instance,” he said, referring to abortion, “freedom is extraordinarily resonant and that’s a very important thing to keep in mind.”

Sieck said her group is working on “deep canvassing,” a campaign method that involves longer, empathetic conversations with voters, since people have “very complex perspectives” on reproductive rights. “People might identify as pro-life or anti-choice, but when you actually talk to them they really don’t think that elected officials should be involved in the decision, or they want their own daughters to have access,” she said. The threat of criminalization is an aspect Sieck says they’re finding to really resonate in conversations, even among those against abortion. “Still, in the end this going to be a mobilization game,” she said.

Abortion rights in the midterms

When it comes to mobilization, a big question on candidates’ minds is whether all of this outrage at the Supreme Court decisions will lead, or can be channeled, into voting in November.

Bennett said he has observed strikingly large drops in favorability for the Supreme Court. “For years going into this past February, it had been extremely stable in the 55-60 percent range, with only about 30 percent not favorable,” he told Vox. “Now, perceptions of the Court are underwater for the first time.”

Less than a quarter of Democrats have a favorable view of the Court, Navigator found, down from just over half in February. Among Republicans, favorability hasn’t really shifted. But independents, who were essentially split, are now at 31 favorable and 55 unfavorable. “These are fairly dramatic and significant shifts,” Bennett said. “As entrenched as partisanship is, you would typically not see that much in the shift considering how polarized we are.”

Several polls conducted just after the Dobbs decision came down suggest the ruling is motivating more voters to turn out in the midterms, especially Democratic voters.

But how leaders decide to talk about the overturn of Roe to get voters to the polls remains an open question. Earlier this week, Politico reported that the Justice Department urged House Democrats to scrap language about their intent to “codify Roe” through the expansive Women’s Health Protection Act, even though Democrats have been saying that to describe their bill since last September.

And in May, the House Pro-Choice Caucus circulated new talking points that warned “choice” is “harmful language” for reproductive rights supporters, and should be replaced with the “helpful” alternative of “decision.” This generated some laughter, but other aides and activists were upset that leaders would seek to ditch the well-known and popular messaging frame at such a high-visibility moment, and without real opinion research to support it.

For now Democrats say they don’t plan to listen to the DOJ guidance and they don’t seem to be abandoning “pro-choice” language, either. Some commentators have said they worry Democrats and advocacy organizations “haven’t passed the denial stage” of grief, and are failing to accept that post-Roe battles will look fundamentally different. Former campaign staffers told Vox they used to expect reproach from advocacy groups if candidates moderated their abortion language on the trail.

Gabby Richards, the director of federal advocacy communications for Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said polls are clear that protecting abortion access is a winning issue and there’s value to candidates and elected officials reiterating and clarifying their stances. “Anti-abortion politicians have never been afraid to tell people how they feel when it comes to abortion,” she said. “Reproductive rights champions, at every level of government, are on solid ground in sharing where they stand when it comes to safeguarding our ability to make decisions about our own bodies.”

In a statement, NARAL Pro-Choice America president Mini Timmaraju told Vox that their organizing and electoral work “combines persuasion and mobilization to effectively engage” the majority of people in the United States who support reproductive freedom. “We’re pulling out all of the stops this election cycle to make sure voters across the country know the stakes of the midterms and can channel the anger they feel at having their rights and freedoms trampled upon by extremist lawmakers into action at the ballot box,” she said.

A spokesperson for Emily’s List did not return requests for comment.

Looking at the polling on 15-week abortion bans and parental consent laws, it’s fair to wonder if pro-choice supporters will be at a disadvantage if they no longer have the more euphemistic Roe language to use. If they focus on drilling down into the harms of specific restrictions, will they lose in the court of public opinion?

Still, in other ways, talking about constitutional law and the comparative details of past Supreme Court decisions can get rather abstract, and pollsters say there’s value in speaking more directly about risks in the coming months.

“We’ve done a lot of various messaging batteries that look at different scenarios, and in terms of the top concerns if Roe v. Wade is overturned, emphasizing women’s rights is critical,” said Bennett, of Navigator. “I do think that getting crystal clear about what’s at stake — ‘protecting a woman’s right to have an abortion as a decision between her and her doctor’ is extremely safe ground, and ‘protecting a right for a woman to have an abortion’ is also pretty strong.”