At the Feb. 11 Democratic debate, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders wholeheartedly acknowledged that women’s rights are under attack in America, and promised to fight for these rights if they are elected into office. Clinton asserted that she would lead the charge, while Sanders pointed to his pro-choice voting record. Yet for all the commitment pledged by both candidates, the word “abortion” was not spoken once. Even Clinton, who brought up endorsements bestowed upon her by pro-choice groups Planned Parenthood and NARAL, could not get up the nerve to call what she referred to obliquely as “women’s healthcare” by its proper name: abortion.
That two politicians who are currently trying to outshine each other on liberal issues and who purport to stand up for women’s rights can’t use the word abortion in a primary debate represents a failure of the entire pro-choice movement, which has been losing ground in America for the past three decades—ever since abortion was established as a right in 1973 by Roe v. Wade.
The ruling granted legal protection to a woman’s right to seek abortion, but it also put the pro-choice movement on the eternal defensive. What was once a grassroots effort to empower women has become a monolithic lobbying group focused on putting politicians in the White House and Congress to defend Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, the pro-life movement has successfully shaped the dialogue about abortion in the US primarily through their efforts on the state level. They forced liberal politicians into the position of apologizing for abortion rights while continuing to politically defend them.
In order to regain the upper hand, the pro-choice movement has to focus on culture rather than politics, according to Stephanie Herold. Two years ago, she co-founded an organization called the Sea Change Program to do this by reshaping the way we talk about abortion in America.
“Abortion stigma permeates every level of society,” she tells Quartz. “And it’s manifested in rhetoric—the language is overwhelmingly negative—whether it’s a politician saying abortion should be rare or that having an abortion is always a difficult decision.”
Bill Clinton popularized the notion that abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare” in his 1992 campaign, using the phrase to appeal to pro-life voters without betraying his liberal commitment to women’s rights.
For decades, this concession appeared to work in favor of pro-choice activists. Pro-life voters sympathized with Bill Clinton’s message enough to elect him into office—where he promptly vetoed a bill to ban late-term abortion and legalized abortions for American women serving overseas. A decade later, Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama dusted off the same tactic. Both committed to reducing abortions while keeping them legal and safe, in order to appeal to moderate voters in 2008.
But these concessions have backfired. By entrenching negative opinions about abortion, liberal politicians have paved the way for conservative legislation that makes abortions harder to access today. In the past five years alone, over 200 restrictive measures have been passed in states across the country, leaving women in states like Texas unable to exercise their right to an abortion at all.
The pro-choice movement has taken this attack as a wake-up call, according to Herold, and is using their opposition’s success to find a new way forward.
“For better or for worse, it has caused us to stop and reflect on how we got here,” she says.
Today, Sea Change works with leaders within the pro-choice movement to reshape the language they use to talk about abortion as a positive force for social equality.
“We reach out to folks behind the scenes who say abortion should be rare and that it is a difficult decision and educate them about how that language further entrenches abortion stigma,” Herold says.
A speech Clinton made on Jan. 10 accepting Planned Parenthood’s endorsement reveals that, within the movement, these efforts have been working. When Clinton addressed the crowd, she said only that abortions should be “safe and legal”—a small but consequential departure from the position she took in 2008 that abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare.” She also promised to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal funds from going to abortion providers in all but 17 states and has long been ignored by liberal politicians. Twelve days later Bernie Sanders followed suit, promising to repeal the amendment if he is elected as well.
Finally, Planned Parenthood’s endorsement itself reveals a shift toward actively supporting abortion rather than passively defending it. The organization has never endorsed a candidate in a primary before, and, despite Sanders’ and Clinton’s identical voting records, Planned Parenthood chose Clinton. The reasoning the organization gave for this decision is that Clinton has taken a proactive approach to securing women’s abortion rights rather than passively defending them as Sanders has.
“We’ve seen a pretty profound shift within the pro-choice movement,” Herold says. “Very few people are saying that abortion should be rare, they’re it should be safe, legal, and accessible.”
That is, when they are able to talk about abortion at all.