Tone Shifting in Abortion-Rights Movement 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. Abortion-rights supporters are having an internal dispute over how -- or whether -- to reframe their message.
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Tone Shifting in Abortion-Rights Movement

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Tone Shifting in Abortion-Rights Movement

Tone Shifting in Abortion-Rights Movement

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The presence of two new justices on the Supreme Court has scrambled the nation's abortion debate. As we reported yesterday, those who oppose legal abortion are torn between going after more restrictions on the procedure or pursuing an outright ban.

Today, NPR's Julie Rovner reports supporters of abortion rights have their own internal disputes over how or whether to reframe their message.

JULIE ROVNER reporting: Public opinion polls consistently show a majority of Americans support at least a limited right to legal abortion. Yet, abortion opponents are consistently winning battles at both the state and federal level.

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

Mr. WILL SALETAN (Political Commentator & Columnist): Here, on the other side, you have these pro-life folks who think it's murder. And the public, for the most part, 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.

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

Mr. SALETAN: 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.

ROVNER: Saletan's musings, on the subject on what plagues the pro-choice movement, sparked a heated online debate earlier this year with feminist author Katha Pollitt. She says in many cases, abortion isn't bad and that suggesting it might be sets up a dangerous, slippery slope.

Ms. KATHA POLLITT (Feminist Writer): If you go down the road of saying abortion is bad, 99 percent of the way, but then that last 1 percent you're going say whoops! we think it should be legal, you know. Best of a bad option, then you're leaving the door wide open for why is abortion bad?

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

Ms. POLLITT: The man never gets talked about. I mean, 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.

ROVNER: Saletan and Pollitt do agree on many things, particularly that the number of unwanted pregnancies should be reduced by 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 head of a group of abortion clinics, and board chair of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, she says her patients do it every day.

Ms. AMY HAGSTROM MILLER (Board Chair, National Coalition of Abortion Providers): 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. And I think that the American population can handle a much more sophisticated discourse about unplanned pregnancies, than either side is allowing us to have.

ROVNER: Some women who've had abortions are already having that discussion. They're using a post-abortion counseling service in California 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.

Ms. ASPEN BAKER (Founder and Executive Director, Exhale): And 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. And I didn't feel like it was the wrong decision. But I did feel like it was hard for me.

ROVNER: So she founded the help line, which calls itself neither pro-choice nor pro-life. Baker says women's reactions to abortion don't necessarily follow their general beliefs.

Ms. BAKER: So 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.

ROVNER: 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.

Ms. BAKER: People have regretted certain relationships, or intimate partners, or husbands, or wives. And, you know, no one is working to make marriage illegal.

ROVNER: One thing is clear. While the abortion debate may be shifting, it's far from over.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host: Julie continues her look at abortion politics at, where she examines how partial-birth abortion plays into the debate.

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