Columns » Jay Barth

Having the abortion conversation

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For decades, public opinion in the United States regarding abortion has been remarkably steady. According to the Pew Research Center's regular polling on the issue, since the mid-1990s a slight majority of Americans have stated that they believe that abortions should be legal in "all" or "most" cases. Around 40 percent of Americans surveyed have responded that the procedure should be illegal in the majority of circumstances. Despite dramatic changes in the nation's demographics and in the nature of abortion (with the rise of medical abortions and decrease in surgical procedures), the nation remains at an impasse on the legality of abortion. Of course, there will never be consensus in the country on such an emotionally and ethically fraught issue. But, is there anything that might truly jolt opinion on abortion rights in the U.S.?

One potential game-changer on attitudes regarding abortion is a clear change in its legal status. At moments when there have been indications that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that created a right to abortion in most circumstances across the nation, seemed likely to be overturned, support for abortion rights has ticked slightly up in public opinion surveys on the topic. One can imagine that an actual overturn of a constitutional right to abortion, which would mean an outlaw of the procedure in most cases in an estimated 33 states, would result in a clear shift in opinion toward its legality.

However, while it is quite likely that Trump appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court will shift the court's perspective on the issue, the more likely result in the coming few years will be a redefining on whether intrusive regulations of the practice at the state level constitute an "undue burden" to women's access to abortion rather than an out-and-out overturn of Roe. While this will significantly impact women's access to abortion, particularly in the most rural and most conservative states, it will not be the dramatic overturn of Roe that might produce a true backlash.

For truly fundamental and sustained shifts on attitudes toward abortion to occur, a different force for change must enter the stage. The model for this change is what has occurred over the past two generations on LGBTQ issues, the topic about which extraordinary change in attitudes has occurred. As social science research — including some of my own — has clearly shown, as straight Americans came to realize that they had friends and family members who are LGBTQ, fear and prejudice was reduced and they became more inclined to extend greater civil rights protection to gays and lesbians. Persons telling others who they truly are has created massive social change. Or, as President Barack Obama said more elegantly regarding the Obergefell marriage equality ruling: "[I]t is a consequence of the countless small acts of courage of millions of people across decades who stood up, who came out, who talked to parents — parents who loved their children no matter what."

All evidence is that stories about the decision to have an abortion has that same potential to create significant shifts in opinion on this issue about which there has been such deadlock. And, this past weekend, at the first stop on the Rise Up for Roe tour in New York, a 10-city national tour to raise awareness about the risk to abortion rights in the courts, an emphasis was placed on the importance of women telling their stories about their own abortions to shift the conversation from an abstract one to a deeply personal one. As writer Lauren Duca put it, "1 in 4 women will have an abortion by the time they are 45. We need to share real stories and talk about it."

This effort to personalize the story of abortion in America harks back to the #ShoutYourAbortion social media hashtag from several years back. However, as the effective LGBTQ "coming out" movement showed, rather than "shouting" about such matters to the world, it is the quiet conversations with friends and family members that have the even greater power to move opinions.

Many women, understandably, will ask, "Why should I have to talk about something so personal and, in some cases, so painful to promote a right that should be fundamental?" On one level, they are correct, and there is certainly no duty for pro-choice women to come out about their abortions. But, if they do, it has the potential to change the conversation about abortion in America.

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