by Cathy Cleaver
April 10, 2001
It's springtime, and as the flowers bloom and the trees bud, a crop of pro-choice advertisements is beginning to sprout on buses and television sets around the country. Slick TV ads are short on content and long on positive and even patriotic images depicting "choice" images as the ultimate American value. A different, nearly hysterical approach is taken in bus/metro ads. These depict filthy back ("Patient Recovery Area") alleys and bathrooms, presumably the only "choice" left to women if abortion is legally restricted in any way. This is no cause for alarm. To the contrary, these ads give us cause for celebration, for they are tangible proof of the shift in public opinion toward the pro-life position.
For years, the percentage of people willing to call themselves "pro-life" lagged far behind that of people willing to call themselves "pro-choice" – 33 to 56 percent in a 1995 Gallup poll. This disparity in polls was something with which pro-lifers were familiar and to which we could readily respond: this was about labels; when people are asked specific questions about abortion, large majorities favor restrictions.
Over the last five years there has been a quiet but marked change in the way people describe their position on abortion. In October 2000, Gallup asked people where they stood on abortion – the same question asked in 1995. And this time the response was quite different: 45% identified themselves "pro-life", while those who described themselves as "pro-choice" fell to 47%. That is an enormous 12% shift toward pro-life over the last 5 years, and a dramatic 9% decrease for pro-choice. This is a meaningful statistical change, and it is especially noteworthy given that none of this country's institutions has left the "pro-choice" camp. As Marvin Olasky notes: "Supporters of legal abortion offer women a quick change of channels (without mentioning the ghost that remains), while opponents of abortion offer the need to accept a certain amount of suffering. It is remarkable not that abortion has continued, but that opponents of abortion have pretty much held their own." Now pro-lifers are doing more than holding their own.
The shift in the public's affinity toward the pro-life cause is so great that even the most ardent pro-choice leaders cannot refrain from publicly acknowledging it. Former president of Planned Parenthood Faye Wattleton admitted in a recent interview that her troops were retreating: "There is evidence of a growing acceptance of restrictions on women's choices and women's rights." As one might expect, Wattleton and other pro-choicers are not standing idly by. They are working to stop the defection in their ranks, and struggling, and spending, to win people back.
In March, Boston metro riders were greeted by a series of ads paid for by the Abortion Access Project featuring the personal stories of women who had difficulty getting abortions. A consultant said the ads are designed to "mobilize pro-choice Americans to get involved."
In 1999 a coalition called the Pro-choice Public Education Project ("PEP") hired a prizewinning New York agency to design a series of ads illustrating the American "value" of choice. "These campaigns," reported The Nation in March, "are one response to what could be described as the pro-choice movement's growing PR problem." NARAL alone spent $7.5 million on ads last year, and while the pro-life movement is gaining PR cache without any paid media to speak of, "PEP is approaching the problem from the other direction: trying to create a movement from ads, hoping to invigorate the couch potatoes."
It is not just the poll numbers that are confounding the pro-choice movement. It is the demographic change that has them worried. Today, half of college freshmen oppose abortion, according to a recent UCLA survey of incoming freshmen. That is a dramatic change from years past: 65% of college freshmen supported abortion in 1990. A 2000 Gallup poll revealed that 40% of 18-to-29 year olds support further restrictions on abortion, a higher percentage than for any other age group.
Salon.com ran an article in January entitled, "Has Choice Lost Support?" Noting the changing statistics, Salon said: "If these small changes bloom into a trend, it will be bad news for a movement that has traditionally relied on the energetic support of the young." Salon also reported that changes in the composition of the pro-choice versus pro-life groups suggest a "generational shift in the abortion debate." For instance, while the median age of Planned Parenthood's members used to be in the 40s, it is now 50-something. The National Right to Life Committee, on the other hand, shows the opposite trend, with a drop in the median age of members from 50 in the 1980s to 45 in recent years.
These trends are heartening. And pro-lifers needn't be concerned that the slick new pro-choice ads will arrest this progress. Think about it: How many pro-life people, seeing these ads, will be persuaded that it's really okay after all to jab scissors into babies' heads? It is a fairly safe bet that none will.
Cathy Cleaver is Director for Planning and Information at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.