Seeing Red is Not Always What You Think

A recent Gallup Poll appears to show a shift in public opinion on
abortion, with more Americans than ever identifying as "pro-life." But
experience shows that such labels as "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are
hopelessly dated and serve to drive wedges between us. In fact, the
poll itself might be asking the wrong questions altogether.

Read deeper into the results of this and other recent polls and
you’ll find that, no matter what the label, most Americans want to keep
abortion legal.

We know from frontline work in 2006 and 2008 in
South Dakota to defeat two abortion bans, that the more we engage in
substantive discussion about the issues that affect the health and
safety of women, the more people understand and honor the complexity of
the abortion issue and recognize the need to leave these personal
decisions to women and families.

It is in conservative South Dakota that a new chapter in the
conversation about reproductive rights was written this year. A broad
bipartisan grassroots coalition fought Initiated Measure 11, which
sought to ban most abortions, and not only won but transformed the
political landscape around reproductive rights.

South Dakota is a deeply conservative state:  46 percent of voters
identify as conservative; 12 percent as liberal. And more than half of
voters believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

didn’t reject abortion bans because they suddenly became "pro-choice." 
They did so because they strongly believe that women and families, not
the government, should make these personal decisions. Further, they did
not believe a ban would address the root causes of unintended

Both sides came together in defeating these bans. That coming
together is the direct result of leaving behind the divisive tactics
and language of the past and moving forward to forge a more thoughtful,
inclusive conversation. This is how and why a majority of voters in one
of the reddest states in the nation was willing to engage in the
political process and agree that banning abortion is unacceptable.

The truth is that many people are morally ambivalent about
abortion. Even the most conservative Americans want to keep abortion
safe, legal and rare.  Why? Because abortion is a morally complicated
issue, which is precisely why women are entitled to think it through
and come to their own conclusions.

One of the biggest lessons from South Dakota is that we as must
work toward active, respectful conversation. By bringing to light
situations that call for empathic responses, we were able to start a
productive and sincere conversation and find a middle ground.

It’s time to stop using the divisive language of the past and start
acknowledging and respecting the internal conflict felt by many voters
on this issue. 

Acknowledging moral conflict is not something
to fear. Finding common ground is not ceding ground. It’s higher
ground. It’s showing respect for women’s ability to make the best
decisions for themselves and their families.

The key to expanding the conversation is to acknowledge differing views
and concerns about abortion while reinforcing the idea that abortion is
a personal matter in which government and others should not interfere.

Roe v. Wade has been settled law for decades.  Those who try to
rekindle that debate with heated rhetoric are taking the focus off the
common goals that most of us share: reducing unintended pregnancies and
making sure that women have access to the health care they need to
build healthier, stronger futures.

These are goals we can all agree on. Let’s move beyond labels and toward meeting these goals.

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  • invalid-0

    For those of us in DC, it can be frustrating– wondering what’s happening out in the rest of the country, at the state-level and the grassroots. Thanks so much, Sarah, for giving us an insider account of how these common ground dynamics play out, even in deeply conservative places. Most Americans are clearly excited about working to prevent unintended pregnancies and ensure that women have access to “healthier, stronger futures”– something that’s really encouraging to us in the “Beltway Bubble”!

  • scott-swenson

    Thanks so much for this post Sarah, it really captures what we are trying to do with this special section, move beyond the labels and get to a genuine discussion. Your experience in South Dakota is an invaluable reminder that when we just talk to people and share our stories something special can happen. You made that happen twice against amazing odds and the lessons should not be isolated to South Dakota.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Co-Publisher

  • aspen-baker

    Thank you for this post, Sarah.  I cannot agree with you more about the need to leave the labels behind and really find out what people feel, believe and want – for each other, for women, families, and the role and value of the fetus in modern American life.  At Exhale, we welcome volunteers from all political persuasions, as long as they share our mission and values – for nonjudgmental emotional support – and are committed to being pro-voice – the belief that it is women’s real, lived experiences with abortion that should drive this debate.  As a result, Exhale is able to attract and grow the leadership of women and men who may otherwise never have touched a pro-choice or pro-life organization with a ten-foot pole, but who are absolutely committed to the health and wellbeing of women, families and communities whose lives are touched by abortion.  Many  consider the grey, the complex, the nuanced to be a place of vulnerability, when in reality it is in fact, a place of strength.  I am so proud to stand right here in the middle of it, surrounded by a network of women and men who not only see a different future on this issue, but who dedicate their lives, times and passion to making that future come true.

  • invalid-0

    The only way to prevent unwanted/ill-timed/unplanned pregnancy is to make contraceptives available to everyone. Unfortunately, health insurers don’t have to cover them. In Ohio, because of budget problems, many services to poor women are being cut back, including contraception and pregnancy support services.

    What many forget is that, for some, pregnancy can be a death sentence. Even in this country women do die from complications of pregnancy. There can be no common ground with those who want to both outlaw abortion, and outlaw many, if not all, forms of contraception.

    Our planet can only support a finite number of people and we are getting close to that number. This means we have to not only insure that all Americans have access, but that everyone on the planet can have access.

    Education and access to contraceptives (especially plan B)must be included in any “common ground” discussion. Engaging in sexual intercourse is not always a planned activity. Especially for pre-teens and teens, and, of course, victims of rape or incest, a way to prevent the pregnancy after the fact is critical.