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How to Talk About Abortion
The GOP is losing the abortion debate. So why are they the ones framing it?
Republicans are losing on abortion. They’re losing elections, from the midterms to red state ballot measures. They’re losing public opinion: 78% of Americans believe abortion should be a decision left to a woman and her doctor, with support for reproductive rights the highest it’s ever been.
Given all this losing, how is it possible that the GOP is still framing the debate on abortion? It’s absurd that the national conversation has become a question of when it’s fair to legislate someone’s body. With voters more furious and pro-choice than ever, the most effective message is also the only appropriate answer: never.
Yet while Republicans frame their bans as reasonable compromises, pro-choice politicians have been inexplicably taking the bait. Democrats continue to cater to an imaginary middle out of fear that they’ll be labeled extremists, even though conservatives will attach the label to them regardless. And to prove the horror of abortion bans, they’re focusing almost exclusively on the extreme stories they believe will be most sympathetic—sexual violence victims, for example, and women with wanted pregnancies denied abortions despite the risk to their lives.
It’s vital to highlight all of the harm caused by bans, and stories like these undoubtedly demonstrate the horror of these laws. But concentrating on the few experiences that Democrats believe are most palatable at the expense of the majority of cases is a grave moral and strategic error.
Every abortion denied is a tragedy. You don’t have to go into sepsis to be forever harmed by an abortion ban. You don’t need to be raped to have control of your body stolen from you.
And while the most extreme consequences of abortion bans do happen with shocking regularity, they are still outliers: Most people seek out abortions because they don’t want to be pregnant. And that’s okay—in fact, it’s critical.
Reproductive rights and justice isn’t about who ‘deserves’ care, or who has endured enough suffering to have earned an abortion. Forcing anyone to be pregnant against their will, for any reason, is immoral and cruel. Yet somehow in the hubbub of polls and bills, talking points and politics, the power of this fundamental truth has been pushed aside.
That’s why Republicans need the public debate on abortion to be distracted with fights over 12 weeks versus 15 weeks, or what medical conditions should be listed in so-called exceptions. They want Americans to forget the central compelling reality of what these bans really do: legally require pregnancy. They take away a person’s ability to control their own body and life. It is a profound existential harm.
The national conversation on abortion may be neglecting that fact, but Republicans haven’t forgotten. They know exactly what’s at stake and have planned for the suffering their laws will cause—suffering they know won’t just impact those forced to carry doomed pregnancies or victimized children, but all women and girls.
Tucked away in most abortion bans is language on medical exceptions that anticipates precisely what happens when you force people to be pregnant against their wills:
“[N]o condition shall be deemed a medical emergency if based on a claim or diagnosis that the woman will engage in conduct which would result in her death or in substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function.” (Senate Bill 20, North Carolina)
The wording shifts slightly from state to state, but the mandate is the same: pregnant people will be made to stay that way, even if a doctor believes they will kill themselves.
What better proof is there that conservative lawmakers know how vital it is to one’s humanity to have control over your own body? How ‘reasonable’ and ‘commonsense’ can a law be that predicts women becoming suicidal as a result?
That’s why it’s so important that Democrats focus on more than just certain tragic stories when talking about abortion. Every case is an extreme case, because every woman’s life and free will is important.
Besides, by paying disproportionate attention to the experiences that strategists believe are the most sympathetic, Democrats are giving the GOP a critical political opportunity: the ability to avow that they’ll tweak abortion bans to account for those particular cases. In fact, Republicans have already started doing this—using exceptions and amendments to claim they’re making their laws more lenient.
The truth, of course, is that these are changes in name only. When Idaho Republicans added language to their abortion ban to “clarify” allowances for medically-emergent abortions, for example, doctors in the state were furious over the farce. Boise-based maternal fetal medicine specialist Dr. Lauren Miller said that politicians were “trying to make it look like something happened, when in fact, this makes no meaningful change.”
But even if Republican exceptions were genuine, and allowed for abortions in certain cases—what about everyone else?
Before Roe was overturned, one in four American women would have an abortion in their lifetime. That’s a huge portion of the population now without care. To abandon them, even in our talking points, is unthinkable.
It also doesn’t make any political sense. Support for abortion rights is the highest it’s ever been—why would Democrats cede anything at all?
We know why Republicans are framing state bans as sensible middle-grounds, despite all evidence to the contrary. They desperately need voters to believe that they’re not extremists. (A tall order when the nation’s leading anti-abortion groups want to make birth control illegal.) And in a moment when Americans are really unhappy with abortion bans, the hope is that painting 12- and 15-week restrictions as a concession will make voters feel as if Republicans have compromised or lost something.
But the strategy isn’t working. A recent poll from NARAL Pro-Choice America showed 70% of respondents don’t buy the idea that a 15-week ban is a “reasonable compromise.” And an ABC/Washington Post poll reports that only 18% of Americans believe abortion should be regulated by law at all.
And so remaining on the defensive—whether it’s allowing conservatives to define what a ‘middle ground’ is, or fighting solely to restore Roe and nothing more—only gives credence to one of the biggest abortion lies of all: the notion that Americans are split on the issue.
In a moment when Republicans across multiple states are working to stop citizens’ right to vote directly on abortion, there is perhaps no myth more important to debunk. Because if Americans believe that the country is evenly divided on abortion, they’re much less likely to ask questions when restrictions are passed against voters’ wishes.
That’s the same reason conservatives are pushing for a national abortion ban by calling it a ‘national standard’ or ‘national consensus’. Anti-abortion activists won’t use the word ‘ban’ because they need federal abortion legislation to sound like something everyone agrees on. Otherwise, voters might be reminded that a small group of extremist legislators are enacting bans that Americans decidedly don’t want.
For years, the conventional wisdom was that conservatives won the messaging war on abortion. Whether it was true or not then, it’s certainly not the case now. That’s why there’s no reason for pro-choice politicians or mainstream activists to mince words or tiptoe: If the GOP isn’t winning the debate, why in the world would we let them frame it?
Anytime an anti-abortion activist or lawmaker starts to talk about their ‘reasonable’ abortion bans, they need to be asked why a so-called moderate bill needs to anticipate women becoming suicidal. If they talk about ‘exceptions’, demand that they produce a single person who was able to obtain an abortion using one. And when Republicans argue that Americans want a ‘compromise’ on abortion, ask why, then, they’re so afraid of letting voters have a say.
Let them attack us, let them spin and lie. Because it’s not “extreme” to believe no one should be forced to carry a pregnancy against their will. It’s not “radical” to point out that pregnancy is too complicated to legislate. How do we know? To start, because these beliefs are the norm.
And that’s what Democrats need to be reminding the public of every day. These are bans being passed against our wills, laws that are hurting people every single day. Not just those with tragic stories—but anyone with the ability to get pregnant. It has never been more important to lead with the truth instead of responding to their lies.
Abortion rights has historic support, it’s time we all talk like it.