It's Not About the Ad

August 19, 2005

By: Lynn M. Paltrow and Terry McGovern, August 19, 2005

From The New York Times to Fox News Channel, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) has been roundly criticized for running a television ad that portrayed U.S. Supreme Court nominee John Roberts as supporting violence at abortion clinics. In response to the outcry, NARAL withdrew the ad. But instead of debating the wisdom of one group’s TV ads, we need to go back to basics.

It is only by listening to, supporting and organizing a true grassroots base that we will be able to build an electorate that will ultimately protect not just Roe v. Wade, but the humanity and dignity of all pregnant women and mothers.

Roe v. Wade and the right to choose to have an abortion are in jeopardy because anti-abortion and conservative forces have spent the last 30 years working at the grassroots level. They have built arguments that appealed to their base and have mobilized that base to elect a president and Congress that could appoint justices opposed not only to Roe, but to civil liberties, environmental protections and workers rights.

Mainstream pro-choice groups, on the other hand, have failed to build a truly grassroots base and to develop messages and strategies that will ensure that nominees to the Supreme Court are committed to protecting the health and lives of pregnant women, mothers and their families.

Twenty years ago, NARAL collected letters from people across the country describing why they or someone they knew had chosen to have an abortion. Not one of the people who wrote said they or a loved one had had an abortion because they had a “right” to do so, or because it was their “choice.” Instead, each of the writers talked about fundamental family and religious values and their profound sense of responsibility. One woman wrote:

When I found out I was pregnant, I had my two boys to care for, and Norma, a baby girl. I already had all that I could handle, because my third child, our daughter, was a spina bifida baby, and I had made a promise to myself, when she was born with this condition, that I would take care of her...

Another explained her decision saying, “I was a Christian then, as I am now, and constant prayer asking for guidance through peace is how I was able to feel that God guided me toward that decision, also.” Men also wrote powerful and supportive letters about beloved sisters, mothers, wives and daughters who had had abortions.

As these letters made clear, family values and even love are at the heart of the abortion decision. Our messages and ads need to convey those values. We also need to invest in long-term campaigns that extend beyond the Washington Beltway and that build on that fact that abortion is just one small part of a woman’s long reproductive and family life. Listening to and building our base will enable us to stop anti-abortion Supreme Court nominees as well as the anti-abortion legislation that is so clearly being used to distract attention from the real threats to America’s families.

By committing resources to the local level, we can learn about these threats and build new, larger and more powerful advocacy alliances. For example, there is a lot to be learned from the local administrator of a Healthy Start program who must beg for money each year to provide basic prenatal care for low-income, rural women. There are potential allies among the thousands of pregnant women who have had previous Cesarean sections and are being told that, for hospital convenience, they may not deliver vaginally and must again undergo Cesarean sections whether they need them or not. There are also many allies among the thousands of women who suffer stillbirths and miscarriages each year and find that nothing in their health care systems prepared them for this loss, nor provided them with the support they needed.

Many local women’s health advocates don’t identify as “pro-choice,” but they are fed up with legislators so obsessed with ending access to abortion that those legislators ignore critical women’s health issues—including treatment for breast cancer, cervical cancer and heart disease.

The reality is that most women who have abortions are already or will someday become mothers. Whether pro- or anti-choice, these mothers are united by the fact that America is one of only three industrialized nations in the world that does not require any paid maternity leave; that it is a country that leaves millions of pregnant women unprotected from workplace discrimination, and that leaves 43 million Americans—including eight and a half million children—without health care coverage.

Women in both red and blue states are hurt by policies that claim to value a culture of life, but, in fact, fail to value the lives and health of the women who give that life. A long-term campaign that is based in the real-life experiences of women (not just abortion), and that supports women’s local health activism—rather than any ad campaign focused on the Supreme Court—is what we need to protect the lives and health of pregnant women and mothers.

Lynn M. Paltrow is executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. Terry McGovern is director of the Women's Health and Human Rights Advocacy Initiative at Columbia University.