In The Abortion Debate, Rigorous Empathy And Common Ground Two national advocates on opposite sides of the abortion rights movement disagree on policy, but agree that the labels that define the debate — pro-life and pro-choice — are insufficient.
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In The Abortion Debate, Rigorous Empathy And Common Ground

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In The Abortion Debate, Rigorous Empathy And Common Ground

In The Abortion Debate, Rigorous Empathy And Common Ground

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is For The Record. When the U.S. Supreme Court makes a decision, that's usually the end of it. But in 1973, one decision launched 40 years of acrimonious public debate and legal challenges.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good evening. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court today legalized abortions. The majority...

MARTIN: Forty years after Roe v. Wade, the issue of abortion still divides.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So many people are murdering babies that can't defend themselves.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Chanting) Pro-life that's a lie. You don't care if women die. Pro-life...

MARTIN: And the legal fights continue. This past week, the abortion rights movement marked a win in North Carolina.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The Supreme Court today turned down a request to revisit a North Carolina law forcing women to have an ultrasound before undergoing an abortion.

MARTIN: And two weeks ago, opponents of abortion rights had their own win in Texas.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A federal appeals court in New Orleans today upheld key provisions of a strict abortion law in Texas. The upshot could be that only a handful of abortion clinics will continue operating in the state.

MARTIN: Late Friday night, a group of Texas clinics filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to suspend that ruling. Today, we're looking at how the political strategy both sides of the debate has evolved. For The Record, the long battle over abortion.

We're going to introduce you to two women who've been on the frontlines of this fight for the past decade. First, Marjorie Dannenfelser. She's the president of the Susan B. Anthony List.

MARJORIE DANNENFELSER: The Susan B. Anthony list was founded to give voice to women who feel very strongly that the pro-life position is the natural place for women.

MARTIN: Dannenfelser says she grew up in a family that supported abortion rights, and when she was younger, she did, too. But when she got to college, she got involved with political groups, and eventually, she changed her mind.

DANNENFELSER: And I really did embrace the pro-life position completely; however, I never intended to have this be a walk of my life.

MARTIN: And on the other side of this debate.

CECILIA RICHARDS: My name is Cecile Richards, and I'm the president of Planned Parenthood.

MARTIN: Richards traces her personal connection to the abortion rights movement back to her first experience with the organization she would end up leading.

RICHARDS: I remember my first trip to Planned Parenthood for birth control was in college in Providence, R.I., far away from my home of Texas.

MARTIN: Texas, where her family was active in Democratic politics. Her mother, Ann Richards, was the well-known governor of that state and a supporter of the abortion rights movement. While Roe v. Wade makes abortion legal across the country, in recent years, the antiabortion movement has waged challenges to abortion laws at the state and local level. I asked Marjorie Dannenfelser if she thinks about her strategy as a sort of chipping away at the legal bedrock that is Roe v. Wade.

DANNENFELSER: It's not necessarily chipping away. I think of it as legislating around the question.

MARTIN: Instead of battling over whether or not abortion should be legal, she and her fellow activists have been fighting over questions like these.

DANNENFELSER: What is the method that is appropriate to abort? Who needs to be consulted before the child is aborted? How much information should a woman know? What should we be insisting that clinics do in terms of the safety of mothers?

MARTIN: Dannenfelser also says leaders in her movement are thinking more strategically than they have in the past. And that means focusing on abortions that happen after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

DANNENFELSER: Targeting who we're talking to, targeting where we spend the money. We probably will not be involved in a Senate race in California. We're looking at places where there is a margin that we know that pro-life people or pro-choice people who disagree with us on this particular issue will come out to vote.

MARTIN: I asked Cecile Richards how she decides which challenges to confront and which to dismiss.

RICHARDS: Well, whether it's the right strategy or not, we don't dismiss any of the challenges. And I'm very proud of the fact that we stand and fight and stand for women and most particularly in those state where they may be no one else standing.

MARTIN: The abortion-rights movement confronts every challenge because the big issue, whether or not abortion should be legal, can only turn in one direction. Here's Marjorie Dannenfelser.

DANNENFELSER: Think of it this way. The pro-choice movement got everything; meaning there is legal abortion up until the end. So any change is going to be a change in the pro-life direction. And any change like that will have to be tested by the court.

MARTIN: It's likely abortion will indeed end up in front of the Supreme Court again in some form. And that recent Texas appeal could be the one that puts it there. I asked Cecile Richards about that case.

RICHARDS: Oh, I think this Fifth Circuit decision was an enormous blow to women and particularly in my home state of Texas, which makes it even more poignant. And it's so important now that we use Texas, to me, as a cautionary tale, and then we, you know, live to fight another day.

MARTIN: Both sides claim momentum and can parse polling data to their advantage. But what's interesting is that both these women believe the labels that have come to define this debate, quote, "pro-life and pro-choice," those illogical labels they say are insufficient. They are everywhere, though, on signs, bumper stickers, T-shirts. Here is Marjorie Dannenfelser

DANNENFELSER: The reason I'm interested in that lapel sticker is that nobody really knows what that means. Many, many pro-choice people don't say yes, I'm pro-choice, but of course, I'm not for late-term abortion. Most of my friends and family that I would disagree with from home and from anywhere say, well, that isn't what pro-choice means to me. So at some point, the labels start to fade in their significance and the actual policy matters far more.

MARTIN: And Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood.

RICHARDS: There are people who, if they had to pick a political label, they would say that they might be personally pro-life. But, in fact, when it comes down to it, they believe that women should make decisions about their pregnancies not politicians and not government.

MARTIN: I finished my interviews with both advocates the same way. Here's my question to Cecile Richards.

Is it something that you so fundamentally believe in a woman's write to an abortion that it would be very hard for you have a personal, close friendship with someone who disagreed with you on that?

RICHARDS: Oh, not at all. And I actually think that's part of the strength of not only Planned Parenthood, but this work is rigorous empathy. And I believe that's what makes this organization and this movement stronger.

MARTIN: And to Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony foundation.

Do you have close, intimate friends and family with whom you disagree on this?

DANNENFELSER: Oh, continually. And actually, I, you know, was truly blessed to live in a situation where disagreement, even on such a profound issue, did not alienate. And I don't believe that should be true. I think if we're going to get to some common ground, it can't be true.

MARTIN: Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony foundation, and Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.

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