What do polls about abortion really tell us?

5 Feb

Wall Street Journal: 7 in 10 Americans support Roe v. Wade.
Gallup: Americans favor legal abortion, they don’t overwhelming support abortion after the first trimester.
Pew: Most millennials don’t know that Roe is about abortion, but favor the decision once they’re told what it’s about.

How do we make sense of this data? What do these polls actually mean for the pro-choice and reproductive justice movements?

Interpreting polls is not easy. We can dissect each and every poll, hoping it will get to the truth of our nation’s beliefs about abortion, but in reality, these polls are brief snapshots–they tell us part of the story, but not the whole story. The many barriers to abortion access that we fight on a daily basis–from waiting periods to forced ultrasounds to the Hyde Amendment–are the result of coordinated, well-funded anti-abortion campaigns at the national and state level. If we think about social change as happening only in legislatures, then I can see why so many people are so pessimistic  about the future of abortion rights and access in the United States. While it may look bleak from a purely legislative standpoint, I think there’s actually much to be hopeful about.

Instead of looking at our movement as scrambling to catch up to the anti-abortion movement, I would like to see us shift gears and see how abundant our resources are, and figure out how to use them to our greatest potential. We have at least a dozen well-established, well-funded national organization that a majority of the American public supports. Many of these organizations have affiliates with local activists in every state. There are dozens and dozens of smaller organizations such as COLORNational Advocates for Pregnant WomenSpark Reproductive Justice NOW,  and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, working to fight for the reproductive rights of all people, not the privileged few, and encouraging our legacy pro-choice organizations to consider the reproductive justice framework. There is a growing and vocal movement of activists, many under 40, who work outside the traditional pro-choice movement power structure and are also urging our legacy organizations to be bolder in their visions. It is limiting and shortsighted to look only at our problems; it’s also not a very good recruitment strategy. Who wants to be a part of a movement that appears to be in constant crisis?

In addition of naming all the struggles we are facing (and there are many), what if we also thought about our potential? Fighting anti-abortion bills in state and national legislatures is not enough. Are we a political movement only? Or are we also a movement for social and cultural change?

Some people are inspired by phrases like “the war on women”—it galvanizes them to participate in the struggle. Others find that kind of language exhausting and exclusive. How many times can you read the headline, “this is the WORST attack we’ve seen” without getting compassion fatigue?  In addition to taking stock of what’s going wrong, what if we also provided support and opportunities for people to re-engage with activism on their own terms? I’m thinking specifically of a new initiative called CoreAlign, which is providing people with a space to discuss the tough questions faced by the pro-choice and reproductive justice movements: Do we want the government in or out? How do we talk about gender in our movement? What kind of abortion stories do we tell to advance our goals? Evaluating where our movement’s been and where it’s going can only make us stronger. And we’ll need a strong movement to fight the legislative hurdles we’re facing.

Engaging in these exploratory, movement-focused questions is often seen as  competing with our legislative work. We can’t function on this binary. We must set gears in motion for both political and cultural change and engage everyone in the process–grassroots activists, abortion fund volunteers, people with mixed feelings about abortion, people who have and haven’t had abortions, political organizers of all stripes. Leadership requires us to go beyond public opinion polls and lead people to where we want them to be. The anti-abortion movement has been doing this for decades. It’s time we stepped up to the plate.

One Response to “What do polls about abortion really tell us?”

  1. Elizabeth Creely February 6, 2013 at 12:13 am #

    Yup! Well said.

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