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Don't Sell Out the Pro-Choice Movement

“The ‘pro-choice’ brand has eroded considerably,” according to Frances Kissling’s front-page op-ed in the Washington Post’s Outlook section last weekend.  Ironically, Kissling, who is the former director of Catholics for Choice, asserts that, “old strategies don’t work.”  But her apparent misunderstanding of the political history of the abortion issue leave her proposed solutions in the stale box of proposals that have failed for decades.  If you don’t grasp the history, it’s tough to see the future with clarity. 

Kissling correctly asserts that pro-choice leaders “have barely changed our approach.” She suggests that pro-choice forces are losing the debate because, “The fetus is more visible than ever before, and the abortion-rights movement needs to accept its existence and its value.” She implies somehow that women have not always been acutely aware of that reality and factored it into their reproductive decisions. 

In her moral face-slap to women, Kissling completely misses the biggest strategic shift by abortion opponents and the singular largest reason for the change in public opinion -- so-called, “partial-birth” abortion bans -- pushed by abortion opponents through the new millennium.

Anti-abortion zealots wanted to sneak an abortion ban into law and if that didn’t work, at least they could create a seismic shift in the climate of opinion on the issue, by focusing the nearly decade-long debate on rare, but graphic late-term abortions.

Pro-choice leaders played right into the hands of their own doom, debating the issue on the fraudulent terms offered by their opponents. This strategic blunder condemned prospects of protecting what had been overwhelming public support for right to choose safe and legal abortion. It is the primary way that the fetus took center-stage in the public debate, an idea that still seems to have totally escaped Kissling.

At the beginning of the partial-birth abortion debate in 1995, 56 percent of respondents to the Gallup Poll identified as pro-choice, compared to only 48 percent three years later. The pro-choice response has not again climbed above 50 percent and now stands at 45 percent.  


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“We must end the fiction that an abortion at 26 weeks is no different from one at six weeks… We know more than we knew in 1973, and our position should reflect that.”  Kissling said.  Never mind the fact that in 1973, the very basis of modern legalized abortion in America, Roe v. Wade itself allows, “For the stage subsequent to viability the State, in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life, may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”(Source)

The deference to medical specialists, protection of human health and second trimester distinctions recommended by Kissling, are already in Roe.  The fiction here, perpetrated by Kissling is that anyone – anywhere -- ever -- thought there was no distinction between an abortion at six weeks from one at 26 weeks, or that there is any reason to change the post-viability life and health protections in Roe.  

Kissling details the heavy attack on abortion rights saying, “The House passed a bill [last] Friday that would strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood, one of the most important providers of reproductive health services for poor women.  Another measure pending in the House would make it impossible to buy private insurance covering abortion.”  She even mentions the fact that Republicans are feeling so emboldened that Joe Pitts (R-PA) has introduced legislation that would deny abortion to a woman whose life is at risk.

Wouldn’t it be great if this Congress would, “provide resources that women need from subsidized birth control to better prenatal care,” on which Kissling suggests pro-choice advocates should focus?  Republicans in Congress are not going to work to “reduce maternal mortality and pregnancy complication rates,” of Kissling’s dreams.  They’re surely not going to restore federal funding for women in the military and on Medicaid, something pro-choice forces have advocated vociferously, without success, for a quarter of a century. 

Pro-choice forces are not going to win any concessions, especially when they know that Kissling is advocating a total sell-out: “If we don’t suggest sensible, balanced legislation and regulation of abortion, we will be left with far more draconian policies – and, eventually, no choice at all,” she said.  Pro-choice forces are supposed to offer-up their own defeat on a platter, according to Kissling.  And if they do as she suggests, they will guarantee that they are left with no choice at all.  Kissling can now claim some credit for the considerable erosion of the pro-choice brand.

Their ends are oppressive, and their aim is primarily to control women, but the strategies of abortion opponents have been successful.  They are the ones who have moved public opinion dramatically.  Learn from their successes.  Find a new message that resonates to rebuild public support of the right to choose safe and legal abortion.  Do focus groups or some Facebook polls.  Ask young people.  Develop a smart, pro-active, political strategy to communicate that message and protect choice.  Elect pro-choice majorities to the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, through targeted electoral work.  But under not circumstances should pro-choice advocates give into the kind of surrender that Kissling champions.

Karyn Strickler

Karyn Strickler is a political scientist, grassroots organizer and writer. She is the founder and president of Vote Climate U.S. PAC, working to elect candidates to get off fossil fuels and put a price on carbon. Karyn is the former producer and host of Climate Challenge on MMCTV. You can contact her at

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