Tone Shifting in Abortion-Rights Movement

The presence of two new justices on the U.S. Supreme Court has scrambled the nation's abortion debate. Those who oppose legal abortion are torn between pursuing more restrictions on the procedure or an outright ban. At the same time, backers of abortion rights have their own internal disputes over how — or whether — to reframe their message.

Public-opinion polls consistently show that a majority of Americans supports at least a limited right to legal abortion. Yet abortion opponents are consistently winning battles at the state and federal level.

Political commentator and columnist Will Saletan thinks that at least part of the problem is that the abortion-rights movement has become tone deaf to the moral ambiguity surrounding the procedure.

"On the other side you have these pro-life folks who think it's murder and the public doesn't believe quite that, but then you have the pro-choice movement that sounds like they think there's nothing wrong with abortion, or you can't make any judgments about abortion," he says.

Saletan, who describes himself as pro-choice, wrote a 2004 book about how conservatives won the abortion wars. He says abortion-rights supporters shouldn't be afraid to say that, although abortion should remain legal, it's fundamentally a bad thing and its numbers should be reduced — to zero if possible.

"I don't see why pro-choice people should concede to pro-life people — people who think abortion should be banned — the idea that abortion should be reduced. I think we should reclaim that ground, and say, 'We will reduce abortions the right way, within a framework of individual autonomy,'" he says.

Saletan's musings on the subject of what plagues the pro-choice movement sparked a heated online debate earlier this year with feminist author Katha Pollitt.

Pollitt says that in many cases, abortion isn't bad, and that suggesting it might be sets up a dangerous slippery slope.

"If you go down the road of saying abortion is bad 99 percent of the way, but that last one percent you say, 'But, oops, we think it should be legal, the best of a bad option,' then you're leaving the door right open for 'Well, why is abortion bad?'" she says.

At the same time, she says, calling abortion bad puts the entire moral burden on the women who choose it.

"The man never gets talked about," Pollitt says. "The crusade is not 'Let's make sure every man in America uses a condom every time he has sex, unless he's trying to make a baby.' That discussion is never had."

Saletan and Pollitt agree on many things, particularly that the number of unwanted pregnancies should be reduced through an increased emphasis on sex education and contraception. But their debate has highlighted a broader discussion within the abortion-rights movement: how to recapture the political high ground that's now firmly occupied by abortion opponents.

Amy Hagstrom-Miller thinks it's no big deal for the pro-choice movement to acknowledge the moral questions raised by abortion. As the head of a group of abortion clinics, and board chairwoman of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, she says her patients do that every day.

"I think that the vast majority of Americans understand that the process around deciding what to do with an unplanned pregnancy is much more complicated," Hagstrom-Miller says. "And I think the American population can handle a much more sophisticated discourse about unplanned pregnancy than either side is allowing us to have."

Some women who've had abortions are already having that discussion. They're using a post-abortion counseling service based in Oakland, Calif., called Exhale. It was founded by Aspen Baker, who was surprised at the lack of support available after she had an abortion seven years ago.

"When I went looking myself, I found a lot of post-abortion counseling groups that came from a really religious perspective and from a perspective that abortion was the wrong decision," Baker says. "And I didn't feel like it was the wrong decision, but I did feel like it was hard for me."

So Baker founded the helpline, which identifies itself as neither pro-choice nor pro-life. She says that women's reactions to abortion don't necessarily follow their general beliefs.

"We hear from people that are pro-life and believe abortion should be legal and have had three of them, and think it's killing a baby and are going to get another one tomorrow," Baker says.

And at the same time, she says, women who support abortion rights should be able to express sadness without being labeled as betraying a cause.

"People have regretted certain relationships or intimate partners or husbands or wives. And no one's working to make marriage illegal."

One thing is clear: The abortion debate may be shifting, but it's far from over.

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