Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe in the 1973 court case, left, and her attorney Gloria Allred hold hands as they leave the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, Wednesday, April 26, 1989, after sitting in while the court listened to arguments in a Missouri abortion case. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Forty years after Roe v. Wade, do you have a problem calling yourself pro-choice? Apparently a lot of people do. In 2009, abortion opponents broke out the champagne and the media went wild when for the first time since polling began on this issue, more people told Gallup they were pro-life than said they were pro-choice. Despite annual fluctuations since, 50 percent of those polled last year described themselves as pro-life, and 41 percent as pro-choice—a record low. Less noted were Quinnipiac findings that nearly two-thirds of registered voters agree with the Roe v. Wade decision, a number that has actually increased a bit in recent years. Surprisingly, other research has found that support for Roe includes 35 percent of those who call themselves pro-life.
Planned Parenthood is betting there are a lot of people out there who support abortion rights but are turned off by the word “pro-choice.” “The labels have become irrelevant,” PP president Cecile Richards said in a press briefing. People don’t want to see Roe overturned, but they feel “abortion is a complex, deeply personal issue.” Executive vice president Dawn Laguens suggested that when Roe was decided, women had far fewer choices, but today we are so bombarded with choices the word sounds “frivolous”—“like choosing your cellphone plan.”
PP is not completely abandoning “pro-choice”—the word has a history, and Richards acknowledged with a smile that the new message won’t exactly fit on a bumper sticker. But expect to hear more often that “we’re not in her shoes” when it comes to a woman’s “personal decision.” Indeed, a National Women’s Law Center Tumblr, Not In Her Shoes, invites women to “Submit a picture of your own shoes—tell us why no one can walk in them but you, and why no one knows your personal situation.”
In PP focus groups, people in the “middle ground” called for a more nuanced conversation. Typical quotes: “It’s not just black or white, there’s gray.” “We define it so many times by the extreme of the viewpoints rather than the moderation.” “Labels don’t matter.” In a follow-up e-mail, Laguens told me, “It was clear from the research that, for most of them, their struggle was with what their own decision would be and under what circumstances.”
I often find public relations a bit bewildering, so maybe it’s my problem that I worry when people say the term “pro-choice” is “oversimplifying” and “extreme” and call for “moderation” and an acknowledgment of “gray areas.” To me, “pro-choice” means you believe that whether or not a woman keeps a pregnancy is up to her—the position most Americans say they support when asked about Roe. That is the “moderate” position. The exact opposite of the pro-life position would be to override the woman’s will and let others—parents, doctors, social services, the government—decide she must have an abortion, as is happening in China. An “extreme” pro-choice position would be the one pro-lifers falsely claim Roe protects: it would permit abortion on demand up until the day before birth. No pro-choice organization calls for that.