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Pro-Choice Groups Are Changing Their Strategy for a New Era of Attacks on Abortion

NARAL is shifting its strategy to embrace the term "reproductive freedom," which polls well with moderates and independents.

by Marie Solis
Aug 8 2019, 9:05pm

Illustration by Hunter French

NARAL Pro-Choice America, one of the largest pro-choice organizations in the country, is changing its communications strategy amid mounting attacks on abortion rights. In an exclusive interview, the group said it will place a greater emphasis on “reproductive freedom,” a framework its leadership believes will bring together a wider swath of the population in support of safe and legal abortion. Though NARAL has used the term in its messaging before, the group has relied more heavily on terms like “reproductive rights,” and "abortion access” to talk about their cause.

The changes are the result of new research the organization commissioned from Avalanche Strategy, a consulting firm that provides groups with “a data-driven set of messaging recommendations” to reach broad constituencies. Avalanche’s findings reflect the commonly cited statistic that somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of people support abortion in the United States: According to their polling, which was conducted in May and June—the months during which several state abortion bans passed into law—72 percent of American voters support the right to the procedure.

But Avalanche’s researchers pinpointed a specific subset of those supporters whom they call the “freedom first” segment, a group that is personally opposed to abortion, but believes in other people’s right to access it free from government intervention. That group made up 29 percent of respondents.

“Freedom first” voters, their data shows, are more likely to share in feelings of anger and frustration over abortion restrictions when they’re framed as “attacks on personal freedom” and “untoward government control.” And as a group, they are more middle-of-the-road in their political orientation: They're "likely to be conservative or liberal, but unlikely to be strongly either," Avalanche states. In short, these are moderate voters. (The full text of Avalanche's research appears below, with permission.)

NARAL freedom first supporters from avalanche research
Political ideology of the "Freedom First" segment. Courtesy: Avalanche Strategies

“Having a deep understanding of people's values, emotions, and perspectives helps us to continue mobilizing Americans who are intensely dedicated to abortion rights and effectively communicate with those who strongly believe that people should have the freedom to make their own decisions about pregnancy, with those they trust, free from political interference,” a NARAL spokesperson said.

NARAL spokespeople also emphasized that the new messaging is intended as a guide for the group’s members, whose language, they say, won’t be policed by the national organization—something that was called into question recently when Splinter published a leaked email from the group’s deputy field director instructing field staff and volunteers not to say or write slogans such as “abortion is normal” and “abortion should be safe and legal.” (In a statement to VICE, NARAL said the email was a “mischaracterization” of the organization’s directives.)

NARAL is the second major pro-choice organization to shift its external messaging in the last month. On July 16, former Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen was pushed out after spending her eight-month tenure attempting to depoliticize abortion and frame it solely as a healthcare concern. Similar to NARAL, the group is moving away from traditional categories in the fight for abortion rights like “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” focusing instead on attacks on abortion and what it means not to have the ability to access it, according to a Planned Parenthood spokesperson.

The shake-ups at the two national organizations have some advocates worried that the de facto leaders of the pro-choice movement are scrambling to find cogent, unified messaging at a time when they need it most. Others say these changes resurface longstanding questions about who has the power to shape the overarching message of the abortion rights movement, what that message should be, and if it’s even necessary that the movement coalesce around a single rallying cry.

Advocates argue it’s not just about branding: They say influential groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood can influence how everyday people talk and think about abortion, and how they feel when they show up at a clinic to ask for one.

“When we’re talking about these big organizations, they really need to get their shit together,” said Alison Dreith, the deputy director of Illinois’ Hope Clinic. Dreith also served as executive director of NARAL’s Missouri affiliate, and is a former organizer for Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Missouri. “It is important to bring in a broader swath of the 7 in 10 people who support Roe v. Wade in, but I hope not at the expense of patients and providers, who are supposed to be at the root of what the movement is advocating for."

The stakes are high if they miss the mark. “Messaging from organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL has the power to entrench stigma even more deeply,” added Amelia Bonow, the cofounder of Shout Your Abortion, an abortion storytelling organization.

In 2014, Bonow got an abortion at a Planned Parenthood in Seattle. She had an overwhelmingly positive experience: Later, in the viral Facebook post that led to the founding of Shout Your Abortion with writer Lindy West, Bonow wrote that getting the procedure made her happy “in a totally unqualified way.”

But the following year, Planned Parenthood became the target of a conservative conspiracy centering on heavily doctored videos purportedly exposing the group for profiting from the sale of aborted fetal tissue. As calls to defund Planned Parenthood ramped up, Bonow expected pro-choice advocates to make bold statements in defense of the largest single abortion provider in the country. Instead, she saw people reviving a common talking point: that abortion only made up 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services. Though Planned Parenthood didn’t refer to this statistic in its official response to the controversy, the group had cited it before, and in 2015, it still appeared on a fact sheet on Planned Parenthood’s website.

Bonow says she is “personally immune” to feeling bad about her abortion, but she viewed the 3 percent figure as an implicit apology for abortion that could put shame and stigma on people seeking the procedure. “A bunch of domestic terrorists are out here saying your healthcare organization is a baby-killing chop shop and your response is ‘We don’t even do that many abortions!’” Bonow said. “That’s such a capitulation to the other side.”

She felt the same when she saw Wen assert that abortion was “not a political issue,” writing in a piece for The New Republic last month that there “has never been a worse time for the pro-choice movement to retreat in this manner.”

A Planned Parenthood spokesperson told VICE on Thursday that the organization will continue affirming that abortion is healthcare, while simultaneously confronting the way that the procedure has been politicized by its anti-choice opponents, echoing recent statements from its acting president, Alexis McGill Johnson.

Bonow said she understands why groups might have a hard time messaging abortion. Even if the vast majority of people support it, abortion remains an issue that’s difficult to distill in a single tagline or slogan. And she and other pro-choice supporters say perhaps it shouldn’t be: Instead, the movement for reproductive rights may need more ways to discuss abortion, not fewer.

“I think we have a unified message—the message is abortion should be safe, legal and accessible,” said Monica Simpson, the director of SisterSong, a Georgia-based reproductive justice group. But beyond that, she said she doesn’t think it’s necessary for “large mainstream organizations to be the sole architects of the message, and then pass that down to other people.”

Simpson says SisterSong’s messaging is tailored to center the most marginalized people, who are always the first to feel the impacts of abortion restrictions. And having a reproductive justice framework—which links racial justice, economic justice, indigenous rights, and other movements to the fight for reproductive rights—means the way SisterSong’s members talk about abortion may depend on what group of people they’re talking about, recognizing that a black woman has different obstacles to accessing abortion than a white woman, for example.

“We can’t expect one single message to be the thing that works, and if we do people end up getting left out,” Simpson said.

The National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) also encourages a diversity of messages within its organization. Lindsay Rodriguez, the group’s senior communications manager, said each of NNAF’s more than 100 affiliates is free—and encouraged—to develop messaging specific to the communities they serve. “We don’t direct them to use any of our messaging at any time,” Rodriguez said. “it is something they often ask our help with, but we provide guidance and then they take it or leave it. Their messaging is very individualized, and very specific to what the fund needs and where they're based.”

Amy Hagstrom Miller, the president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, a group of clinics in multiple states across the country, said she has long argued that much of the language groups and individuals use to advocate for abortion excludes her patients. “No one has ever come into one of our clinics and said, ‘I’m coming in to exercise my civil right to an abortion,’” she said. “That doesn’t resonate with my patients, and most pro-choice language doesn’t.”

Hagstrom Miller says in her own work she tries to use a framework of “empathy and compassion” to approach the subject of abortion. She likes to remind people, for example, that “everyone knows and loves someone who has had an abortion,” and that people who have abortions are the same people who “go to your church, attend your synagogue, and ride the subway with you.” She thinks that if larger organizations embraced this approach, it might help create a broader cultural shift around how people view abortion, rather than entangling it in a binary “war,” as it has been for decades.

Hagstrom Miller and the other pro-choice advocates VICE spoke to wanted to resist the narrative that the recent changes inside prominent abortion rights groups is a sign of a movement in disarray. Debates over the best way to advocate for abortion have always been happening within large organizations, and different groups might play different roles in the broader movement for abortion rights.

“This isn’t an indication that movement is fucked and it’s all discord,” Bonow said. She said she feels positively about NARAL’s embrace of the term “freedom,” which she has used in her own advocacy for abortion rights. Still, it doesn’t change her fundamental belief that no single group can speak for an entire movement.

“Organizations aren’t movements: People are going to talk about abortion however they want, and true cultural change is going to come from the grassroots, not from a progressive think tank.”

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