Choice Language

Ok, I've unlisted my phone number, changed my name, and moved to a different (red) state. Now I can safely say it: The Democratic defense of abortion makes me cringe.

It's the stridency, the insistence, the repetition of a “woman's right to choose.” It rubs me the wrong way -- and I'm one of those classic 30-something, northeastern, educated, pro-choice women who believes the message. I'm tormented by the idea that even as I support Democratic candidates -- and, yes, on this issue -- I'm turned off by their abortion rhetoric.

I'm not alone. Poll after poll shows that a majority, albeit a slim one, of Americans favor access to abortion. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from May of this year found that 54 percent of those asked said they thought that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Similarly, 55 percent told a Time/CNN poll in January 2003 that they favored the Supreme Court ruling “that women have the right to have an abortion during the first three months of pregnancy.” And yet, as our most recent election made clear, some percentage of those poll respondents obviously support anti-abortion candidates. Put more precisely, fully one-third of pro-choice Americans voted for George W. Bush, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. So the question is, how can Democrats soften their rhetoric while maintaining their support for safe, accessible abortion?

As long as I can remember, the tone of the liberal message on abortion has been defiant, sometimes even celebratory. It's an attitude that reflects the victory of legal abortion over back-alley dangers three decades ago -- a success that many who remember it still experience with deep emotion. It also reflects a certain well-deserved panic: Due to the rising tide of anti-abortion sentiment, abortions are available in only 13 percent of counties in this country, according to Medical Students for Choice; in his first term, Bush appointed more than 200 new anti-abortion federal judges.

Still, for those of us who came after Roe v. Wade, there is a significantly different reality. The context has changed. Back alleys and coat hangers are not part of our visceral memory. To this generation, the “choice” of a legal abortion is no longer something to celebrate. It is a decision made in crisis, and it is never one made happily. Have you ever talked to a woman who has had an abortion? Even a married, intentionally pregnant woman who has had a “D and C” for a dying or dead embryo? A college student whose birth control failed? I promise you, such a woman does not talk about exercising the “right to choose.” You may accuse her -- and me -- of taking such rights for granted, and maybe you'd be right. But mainly she will tell you how sad she is, how she wished she hadn't had to make that “choice,” how unpleasant the procedure was. She is more likely depressed than defiant.

That's why liberalism's vocabulary of “rights” when it comes to abortion rings a little hollow. It's constitutional, intellectual -- and not nuanced enough to absorb the emotional or even legal complexity. “There is no organizational apparatus for the middle ground,” Cynthia Gorney, author of “Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars” and a member of the faculty of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, told me. “The way that the advocacy groups have organized themselves … has been all or nothing.” After all, abortion is a right that ends in sorrow, not celebration. It's not like women's suffrage or the equal access to public accommodations, rights whose outcome is emotionally unambiguous. The vocabulary that was so powerful in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s means something different today. The national debates -- on welfare, on affirmative action, and, yes, on abortion -- have underscored the nuances. The question no longer seems as simple as, “Are you for or against?” We are for. But how are we for, to what extent, and at what cost?

In April, I attended -- ambivalently, reluctantly, and under peer pressure -- the March for Women's Lives, one of the largest rallies in American history, with about a million other people on the National Mall in Washington. The anti-abortion lobby had been successful in pushing its agenda on the Bush administration, and the abortion-rights world knew that this election year represented a key moment to rally the opposition. My friends had come in from Colorado and New York. They had traveled a long way, and they made it clear it was time for me to join in. So I marched with the Planned Parenthood delegation from Colorado.

It was a pleasant spring day. Sunny and clear. Nearly every hand held a pink National Organization for Women sign or a blue Planned Parenthood placard, and there were thousands more for the taking piled everywhere along the perimeter of the Mall. Other signs read “My Body Is Not Public Property!” and “It's Your Choice, Not Theirs!” The rally was long, the speeches endless. It was the worst example of liberal politicking at work -- every member of every interest group had to say something, often the same thing; a real rainbow coalition in action. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said we were there to “stop this war on women.” The tone was one of utter defiance, and rightly so.

But the rally ultimately left me cold. I realized I was more aware of the ambivalence felt by women who had had legal abortions than by those who, decades before, had died in back-alley abortions. Bill Clinton was much closer to this understanding when he pushed for abortions to be “safe, legal, and rare.” That line, generated by the White House, caught the spirit of our country. People responded to it positively, says Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, because “we all believe that prevention is better than a cure.” When Clinton left, for the most part, the phrase did too, but “safe, legal, and rare” is what we all want. No one, not even Smeal or Gloria Steinem, is ever “pro-abortion.” Legal, safe abortion is the best outcome for what is always a bad situation.

Finally, after a couple of hours of standing, the entire mass of us began to shuffle circuitously toward the Capitol steps. I just didn't have the heart anymore. I made for the nearest Metro stop. On my way, I passed piles of those pro-choice signs, and a small group of protesters standing silently on a street corner. They were holding signs that read “I regret my abortion.”

That, I thought, would be a good starting point for Democratic politicians. It would allow them to acknowledge that every woman would rather not have an abortion, and that might enable them to talk more genuinely about the impossible situations women who consider abortion face. It might humanize the mothers, and allow Democrats to argue for all the health benefits to women and their families when abortion is legal, without sounding so darn cheerful about it.

Talking about the human element of abortion also might help lessen Democrats' dependence on the vocabulary of “rights,” which John Kerry invoked during his campaign. (While insisting on a woman's “right to choose,” he also said, “I oppose abortion, personally. I don't like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception.”) The language of “rights,” Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president of NARAL, told me, mainly speaks to the college-educated crowd. For others, she says, the left needs to talk about women's health, including sex education and birth control, and about the opportunity to make personal decisions based on personal values.

I'm certainly not recommending any backsliding on Democrats' actual support for abortion rights; de facto, it has become much harder to obtain an abortion over the last decade. But Democrats might do more to shore up support for access if they sounded less like the radical left. They could even use Bush as a model: He knows how to speak to the American people broadly while more quietly reassuring his base.

Americans are very, very attuned to the nuances of the abortion debate. In June, Gallup found that depending on the polls one looked at, Americans can be considered either 54 percent to 43 percent more positive than negative toward abortion, or 61 percent to 37 percent more negative than positive. “The differences in results,” Gallup concluded, “appear to be related to question wording, suggesting that some people are so conflicted on the issue of abortion that even slight wording differences can move them from a positive to a negative view, or vice versa.”

At a time when the smallest shift in the phrasing of a poll question can tip the scales, isn't it more useful, and more honest, to deliver a message that is sensitive to these nuances?

Sarah Blustain is the Prospect's deputy editor.