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
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.
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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.