'Deep canvassing' has helped support gay and trans rights. What about abortion? : Shots - Health News Is it possible to have calm, in-depth discussions about a fraught issue like abortion? Maine's Planned Parenthood thinks so, and is using "deep canvassing" to garner support without confrontation.

A new way to talk about abortion? In Maine, using deep conversation to reach voters

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The Supreme Court is weighing the constitutionality of state laws that restrict or effectively ban abortions. The most prominent lawsuits stem from Mississippi and Texas, but the fight over abortion is much broader. Just this year, 19 states enacted more than 100 laws restricting abortion.


Maine was not one of those states, but in recent years, state lawmakers there have introduced and argued about anti-abortion bills. That's why Planned Parenthood of Maine began deploying a unique strategy to firm up support and make the issue a little less fraught. It's called deep canvassing, and Maine Public Radio's Patty Wight brings us this story about how it works.


PATTY WIGHT, BYLINE: It's Saturday, and Sarah Mahoney is one of several Planned Parenthood volunteers knocking on doors in Windham, Maine. It's a politically moderate town not far from Portland.


WIGHT: No one answers at the first couple of houses, but as Mahoney heads up the street, she sees a woman out for a walk.

SARAH MAHONEY: Hey. We're out canvassing. What's your address? I'll see if you're on my list.

WIGHT: The woman, Kerry Kelchner, isn't on the list. But she steps to the side of the road and agrees to talk. Mahoney first asks Kelchner about her support for abortion access on a scale of zero to 10. Ten means anyone should be able to get an abortion for any reason. Kelchner says she's a seven. Next, Mahoney asks her a series of questions to better understand her values.

MAHONEY: Can you tell me a little bit what shaped your views on abortion?

WIGHT: In typical canvassing, Mahoney might talk about a political candidate, remind Kelchner to vote and be on her way. But this is deep canvassing. It's strategic, focused and can get quite personal.

MAHONEY: Have you known anybody personally who has had an abortion, a friend or family member?


WIGHT: Kelchner explains that her parents were young when she was born, and they weren't ready for another baby. Then Mahoney, who's 60, shares her story.

MAHONEY: I had an abortion when I was in my early 20s, and I was, you know, a little conflicted about it. I wanted to have a family. I knew I wanted to have a family, but I was in no way ready to do that.

WIGHT: Mahoney points out that she and Kelchner share similar values about what an unplanned pregnancy can mean. Then she asks her baseline question again about abortion access on a zero to 10 scale.

KELCHNER: Still around a seven.

MAHONEY: OK. And just so I'm clear, what would be the circumstances where you would say, no, they shouldn't have the right to have an abortion?

WIGHT: Kelchner pauses.

KELCHNER: That's a good question.

WIGHT: They talk more. Ultimately, Kelchner says she can't think of any circumstance where someone should be denied an abortion.

KELCHNER: There should be no judgment. So...

MAHONEY: So that would be a 10.



WIGHT: After a 20-minute conversation, this voter shifted her position to be even more supportive of abortion rights.

AMY COOKSON: What we found during this is that it is an effective way to change minds about abortion.

WIGHT: Amy Cookson is with Planned Parenthood in Maine, which started deep canvassing in 2015 after Paul LePage, an anti-abortion Republican, won a second term as governor. Deep canvassing had been used in California to garner support for same-sex marriage. Josh Kalla, a political scientist at Yale, says there's evidence that it can change people's deeply held beliefs when canvassers listen without judgment and share stories.

JOSH KALLA: So whether the person had an abortion and is talking about their abortion story or whether that person is an ally and is talking about a friend or family member who had an abortion and is sharing that story, the effects seem to be quite similar.

WIGHT: Back in Windham, canvasser Sarah Mahoney meets a man outside his apartment building. Chris agreed to talk but declined to give his last name. On the rating scale, he says he's a four. He opposes abortion except in cases of sexual assault. He tells Mahoney he had a daughter when he was 15.

MAHONEY: Wow. Do you talk about, like - I'm curious - birth control, abortion? Like...

CHRIS: I do with her a lot.

WIGHT: If his teen daughter got pregnant accidentally, Chris says...

CHRIS: I mean, it's her own life. I don't know if I would even try to change her mind...


CHRIS: ...'Cause it's her decision.

WIGHT: But at the end of the conversation, Chris doesn't budge on the rating scale. Mahoney says not everyone is going to change their mind right away.

MAHONEY: The worst way to think about this is that, like, it's some kind of Jedi mind trick. And I'm going to let them talk about themselves, and then it will change their mind.

WIGHT: What Mahoney wants is for people to think more deeply about the nuances around abortion and see there is common ground.

MAHONEY: Because I just feel like we have to be all - we all need to be taking steps to hear one another and move towards each other instead of just diving into this divisive, contrary, hostile, red-and-blue world.

WIGHT: For Planned Parenthood in Maine, deep canvassing is a success story. And they provided training on it in other states, including Kansas and Texas. For NPR News, I'm Patty Wight in Windham, Maine.

KELLY: And this story comes from NPR's partnership with Maine Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.


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