Some More Thoughts on Abortion Messaging
And lessons from (successful) efforts to convince men it's an issue they should care about
Rachel Cohen, who has been doing great coverage of political campaigns related to abortion over at Vox, has a new piece about how abortion rights campaigners are increasingly centering the voices of men as they seek to convince pro-choice men that abortion is an issue they should care about and vote on. She starts by talking about Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy, who (of all people) was withering in his criticism of Republicans for restricting abortion access, even saying that Supreme Court was “just ruining this country, taking basic rights away.”
It’s obviously the case that men have a stake in the abortion issue. First of all, we live in a society, and men care about the well-being and the agency of women in general and of the specific women in their lives. Men who have sex with women have a particular stake in those women being able to make decisions about whether or not to have children. And that puts abortion rights campaigners in the somewhat distasteful position of needing to bring the kinds of men who like Dave Portnoy or who are like Dave Portnoy into their coalition. Cohen quotes an operative:
“I’m no fan of Barstool, but the Dave Portnoy video that came out after the Dobbs ruling was surprising to me, and pointed to this new segment of the electorate that I hadn’t been thinking about,” said Josh Yazman, a political data scientist at Civis Analytics, a Democrat-aligned research shop.
Yazman is not alone. Over the last three months, as the threats to reproductive rights grew clearer, researchers, activists, and political strategists have started to think more intentionally about how best to target male voters with abortion rights messages. When Roe was the law of the land, advocates could focus their energies on challenging unconstitutional abortion restrictions in court. Now, reproductive rights battles will be shifting to the ballot box — meaning what male voters think about abortion suddenly matters a whole lot more.
Even for men who self-identify as pro-choice, their support for a woman’s right to choose has historically been fairly muted, as guys tend to treat reproductive rights as a “women’s issue” that’s best left for women to lead on. Researchers have found that among those men who have considered speaking out, many decide against it, fearful of saying the wrong thing or claiming connection to an issue that’s not sufficiently theirs.
On this point: back in 2016, we heard a lot of complaining about male politicians referencing their wives and daughters when talking about the importance of being respectful of women. “The Daughter Clause reveals an extraordinarily primitive understanding of human rights,” Christina Cauterucci wrote. “It more or less implies that unless someone is your flesh and blood, you have little reason to care what happens to her.”
The problem with this sort of scolding is it leads to the effects described above: Men fear they’ll be criticized for supporting women in the wrong way and decide they’d better not talk about abortion at all.
Of course, there are all sorts of issues that people best understand in the context of how they affect the people they know and love. Men’s concern about women’s freedom — whether broadly or specific to their own relatives — is a force abortion rights campaigners are recognizing they need to (and can) harness to win elections and policy fights.
One thing I appreciate about Cohen’s piece is that it shows campaigners generally are managing to put tactical necessity first. She reports:
Researchers are testing messages they say seem to resonate especially with male audiences — for example, narratives about men stepping up to protect women — even if, in some cases, those themes give women viewers pause.
Will Bunnett, a political strategist with the progressive digital brand agency Clarify, has been designing ads this election cycle for clients who support abortion rights.
“The hypothesis is that men are not super good at empathy or understanding and are more likely to listen if we sort of make it about them,” he told Vox. “So we’re looking to tap into male identity. And some of the ways that are proving most effective make me a little uncomfortable personally, but I’m already sold on this issue, and we’re trying to target the people who need to see something and get on board.”
As I wrote a few months back, the Kansas referendum campaigners played to win and chose the messages that played best with persuadable voters rather than the activist base itself, and it reflects how costly messaging fashions can be discarded pretty quickly when they become too costly to maintain. Winning is important, and ideas that get in the way of winning will, sooner or later, be dropped.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, it looks awfully likely that Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker paid for a woman he impregnated to have an abortion, even though he has publicly compared abortion to murder and does not support exceptions in cases of rape, incest and when the health of the mother is threatened. Later, that woman conceived another child with Walker and gave birth — she’s one of the four mothers of his four known children. And a lot of conservatives don’t seem to care very much.
“I don’t care if Herschel Walker paid to abort endangered baby eagles,” said conservative talk radio host Dana Loesch, quite oddly — if abortion is immoral because a fetus has the same moral standing as a born person, wouldn’t aborting a baby eagle be an example of a less grave moral transgression than human abortion?
Nick Catoggio (formerly known as Allahpundit) is a pro-lifer who worries this sort of attitude is going to undermine the long-term project to convince voters abortion should be prohibited:
I believe strongly that sincere pro-life advocacy is more likely to reduce abortion long-term than insincere pro-life legislation will. My colleague David French has often marveled at the fact that more abortions occurred in the United States before Roe v. Wade, in an era when the practice was illegal, than occurred in recent years before Roe was overturned. It’s not the law, obviously, that drove the number of abortions steadily downward for decades when it was legal and freely available. It’s the combination of cheaper, more effective contraception and the dogged efforts of abortion opponents to convince undecideds that life in the womb is life, not to be dispensed with lightly for matters of convenience. If the charges against Walker turn out to be true and the Republican Party shrugs them off, how seriously should those undecideds take the right’s arguments going forward that abortion is a grave moral breach?
I honestly do not really buy this.
I think the shrugging off of abortion in a politician’s personal life is not so much a cause of weak public commitment to abortion bans as a reflection of it — very few voters express a completely inflexible view to pollsters that abortion should be prohibited in all cases, and once you’re committed to the idea that it should sometimes be allowed, it’s easy and human to come up with reasons why a moral exception should apply to you.
Partly this demonstrates the political hazard that abortion poses to Republicans: A substantial minority of Republicans support abortion rights, and an additional chunk of Republicans are putatively pro-life but lack clear moral commitment to prohibition. They might back bans but they won’t bear a lot of costs to support them — whether those costs constitute political losses or inconvenience in their personal lives (which can even include showing up to vote purposefully for a ban or a pro-ban candidate, as I wrote about recently).
But the extensive hypocrisy on this issue — a hypocrisy that extends out from the ranks of elected officials and into the electorate — also points a way toward a somewhat perverse out for Republicans. If people are convinced that abortion bans are porous — that they or their girlfriends, wives and daughters will be able to get abortions if necessary; that abortion pills will trade on the gray market; that it’s really someone else’s rights being infringed — then that may mean voters who want abortion to remain available won’t feel the need to break with the GOP. After all, enough people have already voted this way for decades about drug prohibition.
Last month, responding to one of my newsletter issues, pro-life columnist Ross Douthat described the key political tasks facing conservatives who wish to make abortion prohibitions sustainable:
One way for abortion bans to be “sustainable and ultimately normal” would be for people throughout society to broadly agree that abortion is a grave evil and should be prohibited. That’s Ross’s goal, and I don’t think it’s likely to come to pass. But another, more cynical way for them to become “sustainable and ultimately normal” would be for many voters to decide that the bans are not ultimately important — because they believe they and the people they know will maintain access to abortion, or because they cannot personally get pregnant and they don’t see abortion rights as a key problem for the people they know and love.
There’s an ongoing discussion about whether the “Dobbs effect” on politics is already fading. I think it’s too soon to tell — the trend of rising and falling Democratic election engagement and optimism might be more about gasoline prices (now rising again) than about abortion. And abortion bans are having and will have material effects on women’s lives — including effects not directly about abortion, like increased difficulty obtaining certain prescriptions — that should prove harder to ignore than the effects of drug prohibition.
But people have a large capacity for ignoring problems they don’t see as affecting them personally. And that points all the more extensively toward the need for abortion rights advocates to continue making the case that all voters — men and women — do have a real personal stake in the issue.
I’ll be back soon with the Mayonnaise Clinic. If you have questions for me, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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