The battle over abortion rights legislation is being fought almost entirely at the state level, with skirmishes in localities. This will most likely continue to be true for years to come.
The anti-abortion forces understand this dynamic, have focused their resources on state legislation, and over the past five years have enacted more than 300 new abortion restrictions in the states.
How can the abortion rights movement reverse the trend? By introducing and fighting for our own proactive state and local legislation. (Spoiler alert: That legislation is right here.)
It is important to understand the public’s views about abortion. According to the latest Gallup poll, 29 percent of Americans think abortion should be “legal under any circumstances” and 19 percent believe abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances.” So most Americans can flip for or against abortion depending on the circumstances presented to them.
The anti-abortion movement's legislation is generally message-framed to appeal to those voters in the middle. Their proposals for strict regulations on abortion clinics are intended to close them down, but they're sold to the public as measures to keep women safe. Their bills requiring doctors to provide medically inaccurate information about abortion are designed to scare women, but they're promoted as “right to know” legislation. Their policies banning government-sponsored insurance from covering abortion are intended to make the procedure inaccessible, but they're advertised as saving taxpayers’ money (which is, incidentally, false).
In other words, anti-abortion leaders understand that politics is the art of persuasion.
The reason why the anti-abortion forces control the message frame is that we debate their legislation, not ours. They decide what they want to talk about—e.g. the sale of fetal parts. Then they plan a campaign around it and they introduce legislation across the states (currently pending in California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wisconsin). Our side simply responds, repeating their frame, and simultaneously convincing the media that this is the debate to cover.
The only way out of the right-wing messaging quicksand is to change the agenda and the message frame. We do that by identifying legislation where we can get people in the middle to side with us, and then plan and execute proactive campaigns based around that legislation.
Proactive abortion rights policies expand access to reproductive rights and justice. There are a wide variety of measures that can genuinely increase women’s access to abortion care, reverse obstacles to such care, explore new and innovative ways for women to receive care, and address long-existing barriers to full reproductive health that predominantly affect women of color and low-income women. But in addition to the obvious policy benefits, such legislation:
● Grabs public and media attention—It provides an alternative to the anti-abortion stories about defunding Planned Parenthood, fetal parts, abortion procedures, and “protecting” women from themselves.
● Provides a series of hard news hooks—It creates legitimate opportunities for news stories when a proactive bill is planned, is introduced, it has a hearing, there’s a vote, and so on.
● Facilitates grassroots organizing—It generates new activism and gives longtime volunteers concrete ways to engage with the movement, not just “list building” or “e-activism.” It helps organizations develop new leaders who, in turn, infuse new energy into the movement.
● Demonstrates strength—It shows policymakers that there is a real political advantage in siding with us, that there is reward for championing policies that make concrete improvements in women’s health and lives.
● Widens the playing field—It allows us to start debates in areas where we have the advantage. It makes no sense to focus all our energy on defense in places like Kansas and Oklahoma when we can make the other side play defense in more supportive states and in big cities.
Admittedly, it has been hard for legislators, council members and advocates to find popular, proactive abortion rights legislation to introduce—until now.
"A Playbook for Abortion Rights: a guide for state and local policymakers" is our brand-new policy book containing 27 model bills and two model resolutions. It’s available on our website here and there’s a link at the bottom of each page allowing you to download a PDF of the entire book. Or we’d be happy to mail hard copies if you prefer.
The release of this book is just the beginning of PLI’s abortion rights project. We are commissioning polling and advertising and will work with policymakers, advocates, activists and the public to help sustain ongoing organizing activities that turn our ideas into concrete action in the states. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to participate!
The writer is president of the Public Leadership Institute.