Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards at the Democratic National Convention.
“I’m neither pro-choice nor pro-life,” said one woman in a focus group commissioned by Planned Parenthood. “I’m pro-whatever-the-situation is.” Said another, “there should be three: pro-life, pro-choice and something in the middle that helps people understand circumstances […] It’s not just back or white, there’s grey.” A recent research push by the organization found that large numbers of Americans feel this way — uncomfortable with both the pro-life and pro-choice labels. And so Planned Parenthood’s newest messaging will be moving away from the language of choice.
Polling conducted on Planned Parenthood’s behalf appears to show some dissatisfaction with the labels. In one 2012 poll, 35% of voters who identified as pro-life also believed Roe v. Wade should not be overturned (7% of pro-choice voters, meanwhile, thought it should be). And in an online survey of recent voters, 12% said they were both pro-life and pro-choice, and another 12% said they wouldn’t use those terms. When asked for their moral opinions on abortion, 40% of those voters said “it depends on the situation” — far more than called the procedure either acceptable or unacceptable.
“It’s a complicated topic and one in which labels don’t reflect the complexity,” said Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards at a press briefing Wednesday. But, she said, the group’s polling showed most Americans could get behind a more nuanced statement of principles: “It is important that women make their own decisions about pregnancy, and that politicians do not.”
Planned Parenthood Executive Vice President Dawn Laguens said the word “choice” itself might be causing problems. “When ‘choice’ got assigned,” she explained, “women didn’t have as many choices” in any area of their lives. Now that women have more rights and freedoms, she said, maybe “‘choice’ as word sounds frivolous.”
Rather than selecting a new term to replace “pro-choice,” Planned Parenthood hopes to move beyond such terms entirely and present abortion as something too complicated to be divided into two sides. A soon-to-be-released Planned Parenthood video takes this new approach, casting labels like pro-life and pro-choice as limiting and abortion as a complex and personal decision. “We just don’t know a woman’s specific situation,” says the ad (not yet online). “We’re not in her shoes.”
Opening the conversation up to situational concerns might suggest potential compromises on issues like parental notification laws or late-term abortions. But Planned Parenthood representatives said the change in messaging didn’t represent an ideological shift on these issues. Richards said their polling showed less a desire to ban abortion in certain circumstances but not others and more “this theme that nobody can be in another person’s circumstances.” Executive vice president Dawn Laguens added that language about making abortion “rare” actually polled very poorly, because women found it judgmental and shaming.
It remains to be seen whether its possible to have a holistic, label-free conversation about what remains a hot-button issue (in a question-and-answer session, a number of attendees pointed out whatever Americans may believe, restrictions on abortion continue to pass at the state level). Richards noted that a nuanced statement about women making their own decisions isn’t exactly bumper-sticker ready. Still, she argued that talking about abortion in this way has allowed the group to reach people who don’t necessarily consider themselves pro-choice: “It’s an opportunity to talk to an enormous number of people we haven’t been talking to as much as we should.”