How to talk about abortion rights—and why

Posted on February 3, 2016

The majority of Americans side with abortion rights supporters or opponents depending on the way the question is asked. For example, perhaps the simplest and most important question is this one:

“In general, do you agree or disagree with the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion?”
63% Agree
30% Disagree
Quinnipiac University Poll, February 2013

If that’s the focus of the debate, Americans overwhelmingly support abortion rights. But unfortunately, that’s almost never the debate in which we are engaged. We are nearly always talking about a particular anti-abortion state law or bill. And that measure was usually designed to capture persuadable voters and put our side on the defensive.

Here’s why that works. Only about 25 percent of Americans absolutely support abortion rights and only about 15 percent absolutely oppose abortion. Below are four different ways to ask the question:

“Do you think abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases?”
22% Legal in all cases
23% Legal in most cases
28% Illegal in most cases
12% Illegal in all cases
Quinnipiac University Poll, September 2015

“Do you think abortion should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?” And if they answer “certain circumstances”: “in most circumstances or only in a few circumstances?”
29% Legal under any circumstances
13% Legal in most circumstances
36% Legal in only a few circumstances
19% Illegal in all circumstances
Gallup Poll, May 2015

“Which of these comes closest to your view? Abortion should be generally available to those who want it. OR, Abortion should be available, but under stricter limits than it is now. OR, Abortion should not be permitted.”
34% Generally available
37% Available but under stricter limits
25% Not permitted
CBS News/New York Times Poll, September 2015

“How about when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest? Do you think abortion should be legal in that situation or illegal?”
78% Legal
17% Illegal
Quinnipiac University, August 2015

The most effective way to change the terms of the debate is for abortion rights advocates to introduce their own proactive legislation and make those bills the focus of public discussion. As you (hopefully) know by now, the Public Leadership Institute has created a whole book of proactive state and local legislation to serve this purpose. (Click here to read our Playbook for Abortion Rights.)

But there are still times when we are talking to friends or civic organizations or voters and need the most effective language to speak about abortion rights generally. How do we frame the issue in a way that captures persuadable voters?

Many Democratic elected officials have talked about abortion the way President Obama did a few years ago. He said:

“Bill Clinton had the right formulation a couple of decades ago, which is abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. I think it’s something all of us should recognize is a difficult, oftentimes tragic situation that families are wrestling with. I think the families and the women involved are the ones who should make the decisions, not the government.”

This is a reasonably popular way for an elected official to deal with the issue. The problem is, it throws the abortion rights movement under a bus, contributing to the stigmatization of abortion, by saying it should be “rare” and that it’s an “oftentimes tragic situation…” There are about a million abortions annually in the U.S. and women are satisfied with their decisions to have an abortion more than 95 percent of the time. It fact, research shows that the real tragedy is when a woman wants an abortion but it is denied to her by restrictive laws or cost. So the “safe, legal and rare” formulation is both damaging and inaccurate.

There is no single best way to frame abortion rights. This is perhaps the simplest:

I appreciate that abortion is a complex and difficult issue for the individuals involved. That’s why I feel that politicians should stay out of a woman’s personal and private decision whether or not to have an abortion.

Research shows that persuadable Americans are more apt to listen to you if you empathize with them about the complexity of the issue. About 3/4ths of voters agree with the second sentence—just about everyone who is persuadable. This is a good way for a public official to answer a question about abortion and move on, but it doesn’t lend itself to the beginning of a deeper conversation.

This is a better way to start a real discussion:

Americans should have the freedom to make their own important life decisions for themselves and their families. These include decisions about whether and when to become a parent. To make these decisions responsibly, individuals need access to medically accurate information, birth control, and, when necessary, abortion.

This narrative is based around the value of “freedom,” which is America’s most deeply-held ideal. And research indicates that “important life decisions” is an effective way of engaging the minds, not just the surface emotions, of persuadable Americans. It suggests the serious nature of the discussion (much more effectively than “choice”) and conveys that women and their families are deliberate and thoughtful when making potentially life-altering personal decisions.

The most exciting new messaging research has uncovered another—probably the most effective—way of framing the abortion debate. Polls suggest that Americans have a pretty substantially different view when they think about a woman who has already made the decision to have an abortion.

By overwhelming margins, Americans believe that once a woman has decided on an abortion, her decision should be respected, she should suffer no pressure and feel no shame, and instead should feel supported by the community. Here’s an example of how to use that frame:

Once a woman has made the important life decision of whether to have an abortion, it’s not for politicians/the government to interfere. Our role is to promote people’s health and well-being, not impose our beliefs on others.

Perhaps not every debate lends itself to this approach. But whenever possible, shift the timeframe of the discussion. Let people understand that the woman’s decision has already been made (which is almost always the reality) and compel your listeners to approach it from that point of view.