In the U.S. abortion debate, the left convinces but it may not persuade
In the debate about abortion, pro-choice activists in Latin America and the U.S. are deploying very different persuasion strategies. Only one group is winning.
Abortion rights supporters celebrating in front of Colombia’s Constitutional Court. Image: New York Times
With the United States Supreme Court now firmly in conservative hands, anti-abortion activists are optimistic that the current Court will overturn or at least significantly weaken the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that made abortion legal. This momentous change could come when, sometime this spring, the nine justices rule on a law from Mississippi that bans abortion before fetal viability. During arguments on the case last December, the court's new conservative majority seemed to question the constitutional foundation of the nearly 50-year-old precedent that guarantees the right to abortion in the United States. Pro-life advocates are optimistic about victory, in part, because the Court now has six Catholics on the bench (Amy Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Sonia Sotomayor, and Clarence Thomas) and one Anglican/Catholic, Neil Gorsuch (despite the fact that Catholics comprise only about 21% of the overall U.S. population), and four of the Court’s six Catholic justices are pro-life.
The success of the pro-life movement in the U.S. is somewhat surprising when one considers that polls consistently show a majority of the U.S. population supports legal abortion:
However, when asked whether they are pro-life or pro-choice, Americans tend to split close to the middle:
These numbers suggest that about 10% of the U.S. population is pro-life but does not want to make abortion illegal, which leaves about 40% of the population that is both pro-life and for making abortion illegal. For students of persuasion, this is an interesting case study, since it suggests that the 40% of the U.S. public that is pro-life/anti-legal abortion is winning the battle against the 60% that wants abortion to stay legal. How exactly is this happening?
Convincing Versus Persuasion
To answer that question we should consider an interesting question: the difference between convincing and persuading. Philosophers from Rousseau to Kant have disagreed on how to define these terms. Some think that persuasion is the higher of the two, while others reverse that positioning. More recently, the following definitions were presented by the rhetoric scholars Chaim Perelman and L. Obrechts-Tyteca in their 1971 book, The New Rhetoric:
We are going to apply the term persuasive to argumentation that only claims validity for a particular audience, and the term convincing to argumentation that presumes to gain adherence of every rational being.
In other words, someone may be convinced that smoking is bad for the health of people generally, yet be unpersuaded to quit smoking personally. Likewise, someone may be convinced that carbon emissions are warming the planet, yet remain unpersuaded that she needs to give up her petrol-burning SUV.
Returning to the abortion debate, I think that pro-life activists have succeeded in convincing their 40% minority that abortion is wrong and in persuading a large part of their audience to do something to stop it. On the other side, pro-choice activists have convinced 60% of Americans that abortion should be legal but have failed to persuade a majority of their audience to fight for the preservation of Roe v. Wade. Persuading, not just convincing, matters because — if Pereleman and Obrechts-Tyteca are correct — it is the persuaded that march in rallies, give time (not just money) to causes, and devote precious energy to the many everyday tasks that keep a social cause moving forward. If the pro-life camp has done a better job at persuading than their pro-choice counterparts, an analysis of the messaging of both camps suggests why this outcome may have come to pass.
One reason pro-life activists have succeeded is that they (either purposely or by accident) follow a critical rule of persuasion: establishing a foundational truth before presenting specific persuasive strategies. In this case, their foundational truth is that “human life begins at conception.” There is power in this claim: it is unequivocal and simple for anyone to understand. On the other side of the debate, the pro-choice camp’s foundational truth is that individual autonomy is a fundamental human right. If both truths are self-evident, then the debate should really be about which condition society prefers: one in which life is sacrificed for the sake of autonomy or vice versa. Said differently, when the pro-life camp says life “begins at conception,” the pro-choice camp has (logically) only two possible responses: “life does not begin at conception” or “it does, but…” followed by a clear and cogent argument for why a woman’s right to self-determination gives her the permission to end a fetal life. Unfortunately for the left, their foundational truth has a more challenging persuasion profile for three reasons. First, autonomy can seem like an abstract concept, which can make it harder to define for the average person. Second, most modern societies accept many more restrictions on personal autonomy than they accept situations when life can be ended. In other words, we allow the taking of any human life in only a few situations (capital punishment, war, law enforcement, etc) but we allow restrictions of autonomy in many more settings (child-rearing, public speech, political activity, health care, home building, advertising, etc.). Third, the recent connection of the concept of autonomy with cars and other machines has removed it from the list of exclusively human traits. This may seem like an innocuous development, but, one can imagine a pro-life philosopher asking if autonomy is equal in worth to human life if it is a trait we now share with inanimate objects?
The challenges noted above may explain why — rather than stake out clear rhetorical ground for the primacy of a woman’s autonomy over the preservation of a fetus — the pro-choice position has, over time, become rhetorically weakened via integration with other issues that, however valid, do not rise to the level of the importance of human life. By way of illustration, consider the first sentence in the “Who We Are” description of the National Abortion Rights Action League, a leading pro-choice advocacy group in the U.S.:
The 2.5 million members of NARAL Pro-Choice America fight for reproductive freedom for every body. Each day, we organize and mobilize to protect that freedom by fighting for access to abortion care, birth control, paid parental leave, and protections from pregnancy discrimination.
Compare the quote above with the first sentence in the mission of their pro-life counterpart, the National Right to Life federation:
The mission of National Right to Life is to protect and defend the most fundamental right of humankind, the right to life of every innocent human being from the beginning of life to natural death.
In addition to the sometimes unfocused rhetoric of the pro-choice camp, there is the issue of the word abortion itself. Pro-life activities and their most prominent social and political supporters have consistently used this term in their persuasion attempts. On the other side, a raft of different terminology has been used to defend abortion, including “pregnancy termination,” “reproductive freedom,” and even the oxymoronic “deliberate miscarriage.” The inability to coalesce around a single term may seem like a minor semantic issue, but it is much more than that. Words matter, and the left’s seeming unwillingness to speak plainly about abortion — which even many abortion activists decry — is another serious persuasion challenge for the pro-choice camp.
A Different Persuasion Approach
I believe that the persuasion challenges inherent in the pro-choice movement’s foundational truth, combined with language that often fails to crystalize their position, have contributed to the lower levels of direct action among the majority of Americans who support legal abortion (when compared to their pro-life counterparts). This outcome, if true, was not pre-ordained, as a look around the world illustrates. In the same time span that saw the U.S. move from the Roe v. Wade ruling (1973) to today’s anti-abortion statutes, several traditionally Catholic nations — including Italy (1978), Spain (2009), Uruguay (2012), Argentina (2015), Ireland (2018), Mexico (20210), and most recently Columbia (2021) — have moved in the other direction, legalizing and in some cases further expanding access to abortion. The persuasion efforts of pro-abortion activists in the most recent country on that list are worth a closer look.
Columbia’s successful pro-abortion camp is known as Causa Justa (“Just Cause”) and it grew out of the feminist green wave that traces its origins to the #NiUnaMenos movement that started in Argentina in 2015.1 In Colombia, the Causa Justa effort, which united 90 other organizations, built its persuasion strategy on the same foundational truth as the U.S. pro-choice moment — a woman’s autonomy outweighs a fetus’ claim to life — but used a very different set of persuasion strategies.
Strategy 1: Make the debate about healthcare, not crime.
As the foundation for their effort, the Columbian activists established the idea that any debate about abortion should be a debate about private and public health and not about whether or not a crime had been committed. As Catalina Martínez Coral, one of the leaders of the Causa Justa movement has noted: “We argued that abortion is essential health care that should not be regulated in the penal system.” It is hard to overestimate the importance of this rhetorical shift. Unlike in the U.S., where abortion remains a debate about crime and punishment, in Columbia and elsewhere it has been transformed into a debate about the health and welfare of women.
Strategy 2: Remove the social stigma around the topic.
The Columbian activists’ most visible effort was one to “socially decriminalize” abortion, i.e., to make it acceptable to acknowledge its existence and to debate the proper policies toward it. As Martinez Coral further explains:
We fought diligently to destigmatize and combat misinformation about abortion. We took to the streets and social media with our messages. Advocates and celebrities came out on social media and in public events to support a woman’s right to choose. In one video, artists, actors, activists and even religious leaders explained that women who seek abortion cut across social, political and religious lines.
This strategy was of special importance in a traditionally Catholic nation, and a key tactic was the activists’ unapologetic use of the word abortion itself, thereby making it a term that could and should be debated as part of Columbia’s civil discourse.
Strategy 3: Shift the ground of the debate to fairness.
One of Causa Justa’s most persuasive strategies was convincing Columbians that anti-abortion laws overwhelmingly harmed the poor. Rich Columbians, Causa Justa argued, could always buy a safe abortion either in-country or abroad, but poor pregnant women did not have that same option. By making the debate about fairness, they convinced many Columbians that the principal effect of anti-abortion laws was to stop poor women from having the same choice rich women had. This strategy proved especially effective in Columbia, which has, as other Latin American countries do, a long history of social inequality.
Causa Justa’s success in Columbia has not gone unnoticed here in the U.S. “These struggles are connected,” said Serra Sippel, the chief global advocacy officer at Fos Feminista, an alliance of reproductive rights groups that works around the world, including in the United States, adding that “we in the U.S. can really learn a lot.” Sippel and her colleagues may find it is too late for Columbia’s persuasion model to make any difference in this round of the abortion debate in the U.S. I base this conclusion on two factors. First, Supreme Court judges are appointed for life, and the pro-life majority now in place should last a least another decade. Second, the disproportionate influence that low-population (mostly conservative anti-abortion) states in the U.S. Senate will only continue to increase in the near future. As one analysis noted in 2022:
Right now, the Senate is split evenly in half, but the 50 Democratic senators represent 41.5 million more people than the 50 Republican senators.
By 2040, if population trends continue, 70% of Americans will be represented by just 30 senators, and 30% of Americans by 70 senators.
This trend means that even as the population of pro-choice states continues to grow, their power in the Senate will not, and it is the Senate that really controls the nation’s judicial demographics. I suspect that Roe v. Wade will at least be curtailed by this court. Should it be negated completely, however, the left may find itself at the start of a decades-long reconstruction effort (exactly what the pro-life camp faced fifty years ago) that may well look to persuasion strategies developed outside the U.S. for its next evolution.
A few decades ago, it would have been difficult for many people to imagine that at the start of the 2020s, the United States would be on the brink of making abortion illegal and that Latin America would stand at the vanguard of the global pro-abortion movement. In the U.S., I think the pro-choice camp has committed some fundamental errors of persuasion. They have failed to consistently articulate their fundamental truth. They have failed to clarify the language of their arguments. They have failed to learn from a decade’s worth of pro-choice success outside the U.S. until it is (possibly) too late. Consequently, even though most U.S. citizens are convinced abortion should be legal, these same people are not persuaded that they should personally expend any effort to ensure its continued legality. Indeed, I live about two miles from an abortion clinic, and it has always impressed me that on almost any day — hot or cold, rain or shine — there are always at least a few protesters delivering their (sometimes graphic) anti-abortion messages to a largely liberal neighborhood. These people are not just convinced abortion is wrong — they are persuaded to do something about this belief. Interestingly, I have never seen a pro-choice rally in the same location. This is just one data point, but perhaps it illustrates which side is not just convinced of their position but also persuaded to personally fight for what they claim to believe.