The Impact of the Pro-Life Movement on Abortion Rates
The Impact of the Pro-Choice Movement on Abortion Rates
The Future of Roe v. Wade
When Does Life Begin?
A Comparison of Abortion Practices in Different Countries and the United States
The Current Status of the Abortion Debate in the United States
How Will the Trump Administration’s Stance on Planned Parenthood Affect Abortion Rates in the U.S.?
How the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Movements have Affected Americans Public Opinion about Abortion 
II. The Pro-Life Movement
III. The Pro-Choice Movement
Despite becoming the law of the land in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision made abortion legal, pro-life advocates continue to hammer away at the laws concerning the status of human embryos and fetuses in an effort to eventually reverse this landmark decision. In response to the growth of pro-life organizations, a number of pro-choice groups have emerged to protect the fundamental right to abortion established in the Roe v. Wade case. Proponents on both sides of the abortion debate have used marketing techniques that are designed to evoke powerful responses from the American public in an effort to sway opinion in their favor, but the pro-life movement in particular has resorted to some methods that rise to the level of scare tactics as well as being deceptive and misleading. This essay reviews the literature concerning the origins of the pro-life and pro-choice abortion movements including how their marketing methods have been used in an effort to influence public opinion. Finally, a summary of the research and important findings about these political movements and their implications for the future of abortion are presented in the conclusion.
Abortion is the termination of a human pregnancy, resulting in the death of an embryo or fetus. This highly controversial procedure is normally done within the first 28 weeks of pregnancy. The termination of the pregnancy is either done with the assistance of a pill or surgery.
Perhaps no other issue evokes such powerful emotion-filled responses on both sides of an argument than legal abortion in the United States today. Even otherwise progressive thinkers who publicly support a woman’s freedom of choice concerning whether to abort or not may hold sharply opposing views when their own family members are involved. Nevertheless, abortion became a “fundamental right” for American women on January 22, 1973 with the 7-2 decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade (Should abortion be legal?, 2017).
Given the significance of the ongoing heated debate over legal abortion in the United States, this paper reviews the relevant literature to define the respective positions of the pro-life and pro-choice movements and how these movements have influence American views about abortion, followed by a summary of the research and important findings concerning the recent and current trends on the future of legal abortion in the conclusion.
Unfortunately, there is little or no common ground between Americans concerning their conflicting views about legal abortion, and the issues are so profound that they defy a universal consensus or even some degree of compromise. For example, according to one authority, “As the Pro-choice faction screams accusations of backward thinking, religious fanaticism, and male domination; the Pro-life group counters with cries of baby killers, Satan-worshippers, and inhumanity” (Alexander, 1993, p. 271). Indeed, many pro-life advocates are even opposed to abortion in extreme cases such as rape or incest, citing the sacredness of all human life in support. Conversely, pro-choice advocates argue that women have a fundamental right to make choices about what happens to their bodies.
Part of the problem relates to how each movement defines life and when it begins and how these conflicting views affect women’s right to make decisions about their own bodies. According to the definition provided by Black’s Law Dictionary (1990), abortion is “the spontaneous or artificially induced expulsion of an embryo or fetus; as used in legal contexts, usually refers to induced abortion” (p. 7). The abortion debate therefore also extends to the stage of pregnancy, with women’s rights to legal abortion being restricted by various definitional issues as discussed further below.
The pro-life movement originated in the mid-1960s when religious and academic leaders in the U.S. began arguing that the human fetus was fully imbued with personhood and was entitled to the same protections that are afforded all members of the human community (Beckwith, 2001). In support of this position, pro-life proponents initially cited the growing body of scientific evidence and more enlightened philosophical views that they maintained the fetus is already a human person (Beckwith, 2001). During this period, the growth of the pro-life movement was fueled in large part by the establishment of the United States Catholic Conference’s Family Life Bureau’s National Right to Life Committee and a number of other pro-life groups emerged in the mid-1960s and became affiliated with this national organization (Crescio, 2015). Since that time, there have been dozens of pro-life groups established with different goals but sharing a common anti-abortion message (Crescio, 2015).
Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion-right groups have sought to incrementally “whittle away” at the fundamental right to abortion established by the Court. In fact, it was not until the Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey that reconfirmed women’s fundamental right to abortion, anti-abortion advocates largely abandoned their calls for overturning the decision in Roe v. Wade and convincing national lawmakers of the need to pass a “Human Life Amendment” that would classify human fetuses and even embryos as constitutional persons (Bergmann, 2013.
Despite this setback, it is reasonable to posit that the pro-life movement is having some effects on abortion rates in the United States based on current statistics. For example, the results of a 2014 study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute determined that both abortion rates and ratios have experienced a modest decline in recent years. The study found that in 2011, 1.05 million abortions were performed in the U.S. compared to 1.6 million in 1990, the peak year for abortions in this country (National Right to Life, 2017). This decline may be attributable, at least in part, to the aggressive anti-abortion marketing efforts that are used by some pro-life organizations that can border on scare tactics (Pavone, 2007), such as the example pro-life poster shown below.
In fact, some pro-life organizations have even advocated violent means to achieve their goals in addition to the twin “legislation and litigation” strategies that are commonly used in their arguments again abortion (Mason, 2002). These tactics have a long history, dating most especially to the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973 that legalized abortion in the United States. For instance, one pro-choice organization emphasizes that, “Since the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in 1973, reproductive health clinics and health care providers across the United States and Canada have become the targets of violence by anti-abortion extremists” (Clinic violence, 2017, para. 3). Likewise, a press conference sponsored by the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1979 was conducted in an effort to identify ways for the pro-life and pro-choice movements to collaborate and compromise. In response to this call for reason, young anti-abortion activists actually presented an aborted baby at the conference, a tactic that essentially doomed these early efforts at compromise (New, 2015).
Even the major National Right to Life organization is not above using alarmist rhetoric of this nature to convince women that abortions are not in their best interests due to the physical and emotion problems that can result. The National Right to Life organization also disregards the lifetime burden that is caused by unwanted pregnancies, focusing only on the gestation period as evidence of the price paid by women. For example, the National Right to Life’s publication, “Some medical facts,” cautions women that, “Nine short months of pregnancy is a relatively small cost to pay in light of a lifetime of potential physical and mental health problems” (2017, para. 2). These types of aggressive and seemingly deceptive marketing efforts have been used to highlight the moral requirement to protect the unborn as well as the purported harm that women experience from abortions, with pro-life organizations offering their spiritual and even material support for pregnant women (Beckwith, 2001). For example, the Pro-Life Action League reports that, “Pregnancy resource centers nationwide provide free services, including confidential counseling, help dealing with family problems, medical care, housing assistance, and job placement assistance. They also provide free maternity and baby clothes, diapers, and baby furniture” (Learn the facts, 2017, para. 3). This shift in anti-abortion marketing strategy was specifically intended to reduce abortion rates as well as change the American public’s views about the need for legal abortion (Beckwith, 2001).
In response to the negative public image caused by their former overly aggressive marketing tactics, many pro-life groups have started rebranding their image by focusing on women’s rights in ways that align them with “feminist” and “liberal” views as a strategy for securing legislative initiatives that are intended to limit access to abortion (Leinwind, 2015). Given their propensity for using scare tactics and even violence to achieve their goals, it is not surprising that pro-life organizations have attempted to improve their image and the acceptability of their ideological arguments. In sum, this more recent strategy is designed to make “antiabortion sentiment appear more palatable to a broader swath of women while enabling the pro-life movement to soften its image and improve its appeal” (Leinwind, 2015, p. 530).
This rebranding effort has also been advanced through the twin strategies of “legislation and litigation” to reframe their arguments against abortion in terms of women’s rights (Leiwind, 2015). These strategic marketing efforts that have incrementally whittled away at abortion rights have also included active support for like-minded political leaders and calls for abortion that are used solely for sex-selection purposes (Leiwind, 2015). In addition, some pro-life organizations have maintained that the United States does not need legalized abortion for population control purposes and numerous community-based resources exist to help them during and following their pregnancies. Besides the aggressive and sometimes-deceptive and/or mislead marketing practices that have been used by anti-abortion groups to “change the hearts and minds” of the American public concerning legal abortion, they have also succeeded in achieving other incremental changes that are intended to compel Americans to no longer regard abortion as a fundamental right but rather as an “unacceptable legal anomaly” (Borgmann, 2013, p. 246). These efforts have included seeking measures that also enhance the legal status of human embryos and fetuses in other contexts, including stem-cell research and anti-cloning legislation (Borgmann, 2013).
Despite the major setback to the pro-life movement represented by the Supreme Court’s decisions in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, movement leaders remain convinced that this incremental approach to changing public opinion will eventually succeed in once again outlawing abortion in the United States (Borgmann, 2013).
Although pro-life groups such as the Pro-Life Action League concede that the overall abortion rate in the United States has declined over the past 20 years, they also emphasize that pro-choice organizations, most especially Planned Parenthood, have experienced significant increases in the numbers of abortion they perform during this period (Learn the facts, 2017). In sharp contrast to pro-life movement, the pro-choice movement has also used emotion-laden but more factual marketing tactics in calling for greater accessibility for abortions in the U.S. as discussed further below.
The origins of the pro-choice movement can be traced to the mid-1950s when abortion advocates began calling for reforms in the nation’s abortion laws (Kerrer, 2011). While most Americans remained unaware of these efforts at the time, there were a number of seminal events that helped to fuel the growth of the pro-choice movement, including an abortion conference in 1955, the emergence of some articles in law journals in support of abortion law reform and the efforts of a growing number of doctors who supported abortion (Kerrer, 2011). In addition, other changes in American society helped to fuel the growth of the pro-choice movement, including an increase in the number of illegitimate births as a result of higher rates of premarital sex, the use of contraceptives that contributed to a mindset that made abortion an acceptable alternative to terminating an unwanted birth when contraceptive methods failed, and the need to eliminate the practice of dangerous illegal abortion that were performed in less-than-optimal “back alley” settings (Kerrer, 2011)
Coined by a Madison Avenue advertising agency, the term “pro-choice” was specifically selected by the movement after the 1973 Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade to counter the growing influence of numerous pro-life organizations (Echevarria, 2013). In diametric opposition to the pro-life views about abortion, the pro-choice movement has more recently advocated abortion as “a matter of choice,” a positive right, which was a significant shift from their “right to choose” or negative right stance prior to the decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973. In her arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, the attorney for the plaintiff in this case, “Jane Roe,” called for “liberty from being forced to continue the unwanted pregnancy” (as cited in Kramlich, 2004, p. 784). The negative right argument essentially sought to eliminate governmental inference with a woman’s abortion decision rather than the positive right to have access to abortion services or an entitlement from the government (Kramlich, 2004).
The impact of Roe v. Wade on American public opinion about abortion has been significant, and since 1973, a slight majority of the American public have become pro-choice as a result (Hickcox-Howard, 2008). The pro-choice movement also received additional momentum during the early 1990s when American public opinion about abortion became even more favorable and larger numbers of politicians began to describe their stance as “pro-choice” (New, 2015). Some indication of this trend can be seen in the numbers of congressmen and senators who have changed their position on abortion. For instance, according to French (2016), just “one in three Democrats is pro-life, there are very few pro-life Democrats in the state and federal governments, and the number is diminishing” (p. 10). In fact, in 2010, 20 Democrat congressmen and senators were pro-life but the number of diminished to just three of four today (French, 2016). In addition, the positive right to abortion which has emerged in recent years has also translated into growing recognition and acceptance by the American public and policymakers concerning the fundamental right that women have to make their own decisions about their bodies (Crescio, 2015).
One important pro-choice organization is NARAL Pro-Choice America, headquartered in Washington, DC which characterizes legal abortion as women’s “fundamental right.” According to NARAL Pro-Choice America’s Web site, “The right to choose abortion is essential to ensuring a woman can decide for herself if, when and with whom to start or grow a family. We’ll never stop fighting to protect and expand this fundamental human right” (Abortion access, 2017, para. 2). Another influential pro-choice organization, the National Abortion Federation, likewise cites the deceptive tactics that have been used by pro-life groups to advance their ideology and enlist the support of politicians. As the National Abortion Federation puts it, “Throughout the history of legal abortion, anti-abortion extremists have used propaganda, misinformation, and outright lies to dissuade women from choosing abortion. Women have the right to make fully informed decisions about their reproductive health care free from these anti-choice myths” (Abortion myths, 2017, para. 1).
These anti-choice myths have been reinforced through marketing tactics that have traditionally framed the pro-life position in terms of moral absolutes (e.g., abortion = death). By contrast, the types of marketing tactics used by pro-life advocates that tend to ignore women’s experiences while focusing on the moral issues, the pro-choice movement has used marketing methods that focus on the lived experiences of women to encourage and reinforce pro-abortion views on the part of the American public and policymakers (Echevarria, 2013). This shift in policy on the part of the pro-choice movement was largely in response to the aggressive and sometimes-deceptive marketing efforts that were being routinely employed by the pro-life movement as well as the need to educate young American women who have lived all their lives in the wake of Roe v. Wade and the right to abortion has been firmly established in American jurisprudence (Baumgardner, 2001). The marketing messages that were deployed at this time were also in response to efforts by the pro-life movement to effect changes in the law such as the 1992 ballot initiative in Arizona that sought to criminalize abortion, Operation Rescue “Summer of Mercy” in Wichita, Kansas in 1991 and the siege of Fargo, North Dakota by the Lambs of Christ in 1991 (Baumgardner, 2001).
Drawing on the same methods used by the pro-life movement, the pro-choice movement also enlisted the support of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, DeVito/Verdi, to design a series of public service advertisements termed the “Pro-Choice Public Education Project” in 1999 (Baumgardner, 2001). The sponsor of this initiative as was a consortium of women’s rights organization, including a steering committee that included Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Ms. Foundation (Baumgardner, 2001). Although not rising to the same level as some of the scare tactics that have been used by the pro-life movement, the Pro-Choice Public Education Project’s advertisements and posters were also clearly designed to evoke a strong emotional response to help overcome the growing complacency of young women concerning their fundamental right to legal abortion. For instance, as shown in Figure 2 below that features several stern-looking white men, one poster reads, “77 percent of anti-abortion leaders are men [and] 100 percent of them will never be pregnant.” The poster also adds that, “It’s your body. It’s your decision. It’s pro-choice or no choice.”
Likewise, as shown in Figure 3 below, a second poster depicts a young modern American woman with tattoos and piercings and reads, “You think you can do what you want with your body? Think again.”
While it is difficult to discern the precise impact that this marketing campaign had on public opinion, most authorities agree that it was effective in further intensifying the abortion debate over the past several years (Baumgardner, 2001). In fact, it is noteworthy that the pro-life movement responded to this marketing campaign with a series of advertisements of their own, but they once again returned to their former strategy of scare tactics by using disturbing graphic images of fully developed human fetuses to communicate their anti-abortion arguments (Baumgardner, 2001).
Taken together, it is little wonder that abortion remain such a divisive issue among Americans, with both sides of the argument using powerful marketing messages to convince them of the appropriateness and legitimacy of their respective positions. Nevertheless, and to their credit, it is clear that the pro-choice movement has largely taken the high – or at least higher — road compared to the anti-abortion movement in advancing their cause. Based on the pro-choice movement’s recognition that complacency about abortion rights may result in increased incremental limitations and the highly organized approach being used by anti-abortion groups, it remains unclear whether the pro-choice movement’s efforts will be sufficient to prevent further erosion in this fundamental right. .
The pro-life movement argues that abortion in most if not all circumstances is morally repugnant and unborn persons are entitled to the same legal protections that are afforded all members of the human community. Conversely, the pro-choice movement maintains that American women have a fundamental right to make decisions about what happens to their bodies, including the decision to abort. In the past, pro-life advocates resorted to violence and deceptive marketing tactics to advance their goals, but the movement has recently recognized the need to reframe its messages in ways that will make them more acceptable to the American public. The pro-choice movement emerged at roughly the same time as the pro-life movement, due in large part to the increased involvement of the legal and medical communities which called for reforms in the nation’s draconian anti-abortion laws that drove thousands of women to illegal abortionists at great risk to their health. The research was consistent in showing, though, that there is no middle ground between these opposing positions, and the efforts to do so to date have been marred by extremism on the part of pro-life advocates. The research was also consistent in showing that both of these movements have had a major impact on public opinion due to their marketing efforts, but the pro-choice movement continues to receive the support of a majority of Americans today. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the abortion debate has not been resolved, but has only intensified as pro-life proponents continue to call for the overturn of Roe v. Wade and recriminalize abortion in the United States.
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