Back in 1986, the abortion rights movement was facing the conservative backlash to the social movements of the 1960s and '70s. Reaganism was in full effect. So was the War on Drugs. More people were subject to arrest and imprisonment, sparking the beginning of mass incarceration.
In Arkansas at that time, feminist activists faced a daunting political challenge: a proposed constitutional amendment to declare the rights of the unborn. Given the increasing hostile conservative political climate, the activists sought to make their message mainstream and palatable to Southern voters.
Slate journalist William Saletan documented this calculation in his 2004 book, Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War: leaders sought to connect the right to an abortion with white southerners' fears of outside attempts “to confiscate their firearms or bus their kids to black schools.”
It worked. Using the message of privacy and choice, the feminist coalition won — narrowly. This win marked the first time an abortion victory was due to alignment with a conservative political agenda. Saletan points out how this anti-government “keep your laws off my body” approach created a “mutant version of abortion rights as a viable alternative to the feminist, egalitarian version originally envisioned by pro-choice activists.”
One can win the battle and still lose the war. Nevertheless, the “pro-choice” label—conveying the right to privacy and a righteous stand against government intrusion — stuck. It has been the defining message of the abortion rights movement ever since.
Now Planned Parenthood is publicly stepping away from this label, talking openly about its challenges and their desire to reach new, younger audiences with a broader message. It’s about time.
Shifting conversations away from the pro-choice/pro-life dichotomy of the abortion war has been decades in the making. A wide variety of factors have finally coalesced to mark the beginning of what could be a new, exciting political reality: a more nuanced, compassionate public conversation about abortion.
One of the most influential factors in this change has been the leadership and influence of women of color who have advocated for a much broader, more layered approach to reproductive rights. I can only imagine how the move to appeal to racist attitudes went over with activists fighting for an increased role of the government to help communities of color access health services. But these women didn’t let any setbacks that came with this label stop them. They funneled their passion into building the kind of broad “reproductive justice” movement they always wanted — linking issues like prisoner rights and poverty to reproductive health, often organizing their communities to achieve great political success.
In addition, the voices and experiences of women who have abortions, and the voices of their loved ones, have successfully inserted more gray into what is often a black-and-white public conversation about abortion. It started with the pro-life movement, which made its own political shift in the 1980s. Leaders decided to address abortion regret — one of the many feelings women can experience after an abortion — in their attempt to reach new audiences and connect their political position with a broader message of women’s health. They created an extensive national network of post-abortion counseling centers that invited women to their side by promising compassion and care for their emotions.
For years, the pro-choice movement attacked the pro-life counseling efforts — ignoring the many emotional responses women can have to abortion. The pro-life side focused on feelings of regret post-abortion while the pro-choice side would only publicly acknowledge feelings of relief.
These political tactics worked only as long as women who had abortions didn’t speak out about their own experiences and needs. Once that changed and women — like me — began to talk more openly about our unique experiences and organized ourselves to provide the non-judgmental emotional support we couldn’t find elsewhere, the nuances and layers of our stories started to shift public awareness and understanding.
Neither Planned Parenthood nor their pro-life opponents could dominate the airwaves anymore with their narrow views defining abortion experiences because women and men were speaking personally, openly and publicly about their own abortions. Factor in the changing demographics of the voting electorate and a new generation of young people who reject labels and believes in the power of creativity and self-expression to change the world, and the writing is on the wall.
The old dichotomy of the culture war is dying.
It's time to chart a new path. While Planned Parenthood may not have been in the lead, their shift does signal an important cultural moment. The true test for them, and anyone else who seeks to shape the future of the abortion conversation in our country, is whether we can create a new, more respectful public narrative.
Imagine what becomes possible if we successfully move far beyond the prevailing question: “which side are you on?”
Aspen Baker is the author of Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight (Berrett-Koehler, 2015) and the Founder and Executive Director of Exhale.