For twenty-five years the pro-life movement has stood up to defend
the most crucial principle in any civilized society, namely, the
value of every human life. However, neither the profundity and scale of
cause, nor the integrity of those who work to support it, necessarily
into effective action. Recent research on the psychology of pro-choice
offers insight into why the pro-life movement has not been as effective
might have been in persuading women to choose life; it also offers
to improve dramatically the scope and influence of the pro-life message,
particularly among women of childbearing age.
This research suggests that modern American women of childbearing age
view the abortion issue within the same moral framework as those of us
pro-life activists. Our message is not being well-received by this
because we have made the error of assuming that women, especially those
the trauma of an unplanned pregnancy, will respond to principles we see
self-evident within our own moral framework, and we have presented our
accordingly. This is a miscalculation that has fatally handicapped the
cause. While we may not agree with how women currently evaluate this
importance of our mission and the imperative to be effective demand that
listen, that we understand, and that we respond to the actual concerns
who are most likely to choose abortion.
The importance of a new approach became clear from the results of
sophisticated research pioneered by the Caring Foundation, a group that
the pro-life message to the public via television. This group has been
tap into some of the most advanced psychological research available
so-called "right brain" research. (The distinction between "right brain"
"left brain" activity may be physiologically oversimplified or even
it remains useful as a shorthand description of different ways of
The right side of the brain is thought to control the emotional,
creative aspect of the person. Whereas most research involves analytic,
questions and thus draws responses primarily from the left side of the
"right brain" research aims to uncover the underlying emotional reasons
make particular decisions or hold certain beliefs. Such an approach has
applications to an issue such as abortion, as a woman in the grips of a
pregnancy certainly does not resolve this issue in a cold, logical,
These studies were carried out by a national leader in this type of
one that has worked with companies such as General Motors, Ford,
Toyota, Whirlpool, ABC Television, Federal Express, GTE, Saturn
Maybelline, and the Department of Defense. The technique used is a
in-depth, one-on-one interviews that utilize visualization, repetition,
relaxation to evoke deep-seated emotional responses to a given topic.
results of these studies, which were conducted in 1994 and 1997, can be
at a better than 95 percent confidence level.
One objective of the research was to answer a question that has
pro-life activists for some time. How can women, and the public in
comfortable with being against abortion personally but in favor of
legal? Because pro-lifers find it morally obvious that one cannot
hold that "abortion is killing" and "abortion should be legal," they
to assume that people need only to be shown more clearly that the fetus
baby. They assume that if the humanity of the unborn is understood, the
consequent moral imperative, "killing a baby is wrong," will naturally
and women will choose life for their unborn children. This orientation
framed much of the argument by pro-lifers for over two decades, with
frustratingly little impact.
The new research shows why the traditional approach has had so little
and what can be done to change things.
The summary report of the study bears the intriguing title "Abortion:
Least Of Three Evils-Understanding the Psychological Dynamics of How
About Abortion." The report suggests that women do not see any "good"
from an unplanned pregnancy. Instead they must weigh what they perceive
"evils," namely, motherhood, adoption, and abortion.
Unplanned motherhood, according to the study, represents a threat so
modern women that it is perceived as equivalent to a "death of self."
woman may rationally understand this is not her own literal death, her
emotional, subconscious reaction to carrying the child to term is that
will be "over." This is because many young women of today have developed
self-identity that simply does not include being a mother. It may
through college, getting a degree, obtaining a good job, even getting
someday; but the sudden intrusion of motherhood is perceived as a
of control over their present and future selves. It shatters their sense
they are and will become, and thereby paralyzes their ability to think
rationally or realistically.
When these women evaluate the abortion decision, therefore, they do
not, as a
pro-lifer might, formulate the problem with the radically distinct
either "I must endure an embarrassing pregnancy" or "I must destroy the
an innocent child." Instead, their perception of the choice is either
is over" or "the life of this new child is over." Given this
choice of abortion becomes one of self-preservation, a much more
position, both to the woman deciding to abort and to those supporting
Even those women who are likely to choose life rather than abortion
do so not
because they better understand fetology or have a greater love for
because they have a broader and less fragile sense of self, and they can
incorporate motherhood into their self-identity.
Adoption, unfortunately, is seen as the most "evil" of the three
it is perceived as a kind of double death. First, the death of self, as
woman would have to accept motherhood by carrying the baby to term.
only would the woman be a mother, but she would perceive herself as a
mother, one who gave her own child away to strangers. The second death
death of the child "through abandonment." A woman worries about the
her child being abused. She is further haunted by the uncertainty of the
future, and about the possibility of the child returning to intrude on
life many years later. Basically, a woman desperately wants a sense of
resolution to her crisis, and in her mind, adoption leaves the situation
most unresolved, with uncertainty and guilt as far as she can see for
herself and her child. As much as we might like to see the slogan
Abortion" embraced by women, this study suggests that in pitting
against abortion, adoption will be the hands-down loser.
The attitude of these women toward abortion is quite surprising.
of the scores of women involved in the study (none of whom were pro-life
activists and all of whom called themselves "pro-choice") agreed that
is killing. While this is something that is no doubt "written on the
heart," credit for driving home the reality of abortion is also due to
persevering educational work of the pro-life movement. Second, the women
that abortion is wrong, an evil, and that God will punish a woman who
choice. Third, however, these women feel that God will ultimately
woman, because He is a forgiving God, because the woman did not intend
pregnant, and finally, because a woman in such crisis has no real
perception is that the woman’s whole life is at stake.
In fact, while abortion itself is seen as something evil, the woman
to make that choice is perceived as being courageous, because she has
difficult, costly, but necessary decision in order to get on with her
Basically, abortion is considered the least of three evils because it is
perceived as offering the greatest hope for a woman to preserve her own
self, her own life. This is why women feel protective towards the
and her "right to choose," and deeply resentful towards the pro-life
which they perceive as uncaring and judgmental.
Note that the primary concerns in any of the three options revolve
woman, and not the unborn child. This helps to explain the appeal of the
rhetoric of "choice." It offers the sense that women in crisis still
control over their future, and it allows women who may dislike abortion
themselves to still seem compassionate towards other women in crisis.
These insights also shed light on another fundamental source of
and failure in the pro-life movement. A quarter century of polling has
over and over that most Americans oppose most abortions, and that women
slightly more pro-life than men. Yet Americans are increasingly
the pro-choice rather than the pro-life label, and pro-life activists
viewed as dangerous extremists. Is this due entirely to media bias? Why
that the pro-life movement has not been able to build on the innate
sentiment of the average person, and may even be losing ground in the
Results from this study suggest that the difficulty in gaining public
is not due entirely to unfair treatment by the media, although such
has no doubt played a significant role. The pro-life movement’s own
slogans and educational presentations have tended to exacerbate the
they focus almost exclusively on the unborn child, not the mother. This
build resentment, not sympathy, particularly among women of
It is not surprising that the first people in the pro-life community
notice the need for a different approach were those who actually work
in crisis. When crisis pregnancy centers first sprang up across the
example, they chose names such as "Home for the Little Ones" or "New
Ministries." Today you will see names such as "A Woman’s Concern" or
In contrast, consider a common pro-life slogan: "Abortion Stops a
Heart." While this may be an effective phrase among pro-lifers, the
a young woman in crisis would probably be to: 1) provoke anger at the
(pro-lifers), 2) confirm her sense that pro-lifers ignore her life and
situation, and 3) drive her further into denial and despair. If the
goal is to lower the abortion rate and not just to state an objective
have to ask whether such a message may well be counterproductive.
When a woman faces an unplanned pregnancy, her main question is not
a baby?"-with the assumed consequence that if she knows it to be so she
choose life. Women know, though often at the subconscious level, that
is human, and that it will be killed by abortion. But that is the price a
in that situation is willing to pay in her desperate struggle for what
believes to be her very survival. Emphasis on babies, whether
fetuses or happy newborns, will tend to deepen the woman’s sense of
isolation, and despair, the very emotions that will lead her to choose
Her central, perhaps subconscious, question is rather, "How can I
own life?" The pro-life movement must address her side of the equation,
so in a compassionate manner that affirms her own inner convictions.
stigmatizing or condemning, pro-lifers must help a woman to reevaluate
perceives as the three "evils" before her.
As an example of how this is put into practice, the Caring Foundation
run two contrasting ads in a given television market. One offers a role
a women who can identify with the concerns of the target audience but
chosen life and presents it in a positive light; the other, again framed
the woman’s own perspective, presents abortion as a negative resolution
One of the pro-motherhood ads runs as follows:
[A woman is in front of a nice house, raking leaves. She says
good-bye to her
daughter, then turns to the viewer.] "I was sixteen when I found out
that I was
pregnant with Carrie. I wasn’t married and I was really scared. You
people today say that I should have had an abortion, but it never
occurred to me
that I had that choice, just because it wasn’t convenient for me. Hey,
martyr, but I really can’t believe I had a choice after I was pregnant.
While this ad is not always popular among pro-life activists, polls
is extremely effective with young women. This is because it presents a
model who is approachable and believable, and the subliminal message in
ad-the nice house, the good relationship with the daughter, the image of
as the woman stands holding the rake as she takes care of her own
reinforce the message that this woman is, in fact, a kind of martyr,
has made a difficult decision but "gotten on with her life." The ad
offers the very kind of resolution a woman facing a crisis pregnancy
seeks and which she is too often deceived into thinking abortion will
An ad that more directly discourages abortion runs as follows:
[A woman rises from her bed, the clock showing 3:00 a.m. She goes to
window, staring into the black, rainy night. She stands silently, as a
voice speaks.] "They said you wouldn’t be bothered by a voice calling
for you in
the night. . . . There would be no trail of cereal through the house, no
or stray toys. The clock ticks. All is calm. And you realize, there is
voice. If you’ve faced the pain of an abortion, call 1-800. . . ."
In both cases the focus is on the woman, on someone who has been
experience of an unwanted pregnancy. The ads do not make an explicit
they only convey lived experiences, with very different resolutions and
Here is another very effective ad:
[A young woman sits by a fireplace, facing the camera.] "You know, I
be pro-choice, and then something happened to me-I had a baby of my own.
was pregnant I finally realized that all this little kid was trying to
make it, just make it, just like all of us. So I haven’t figured it all
but why, when I wanted the baby, it was a baby, and when I didn’t, it
something else? Think about it."
Again, this woman does not pretend to have all the answers or to fit
into the pro-life camp. She simply shares her own experience and asks a
that effectively undermines pro-choice rhetoric.
How effective have such ads been? The work of the Caring Foundation
originated in Missouri, where ads have been airing for a number of
that state has had the fastest dropping abortion rate in the United
States-almost six times the national average. From 1988 to 1992 the
rate dropped just 5 percent nationally, but 29 percent in Missouri.
In addition to the falling abortion rate, recent polls of teens in
City, Missouri, area also suggest a pro-life sentiment that is
different from the Midwest average. Whereas a Gallup poll showed teens
Midwest mirroring the national average of 29 percent of youths who are
pro-life, a 1996 poll of over seven thousand students from thirty-three
in central Missouri showed over 60 percent of the teens to be strongly
Two other states have also been airing ads for a number of years, and
have seen a drop in abortions of just under 40 percent. In Michigan, the
of abortions has dropped from 49,098 in 1987 to 31,091 in 1995. In
abortions have declined from a high of 20,819 abortions in 1981 to
abortions in 1995. A much more careful and tightly controlled study
needs to be
done to determine to what extent the use of television ads may have
to these numbers, though it is doubtful if enough variables could be
to reach a solid conclusion.
Because the Caring Foundation hires independent, professional polling
to conduct pre- and post-polling, it can be stated without doubt that
the ads do
shift public opinion and do affect young women’s decision to abort or
children. Many crisis pregnancy centers have reported that women have
them who were planning to choose abortion until they saw the pro-life
In 1997, a thirteen-week television campaign was conducted in the
Boston market, covering an audience of 4,400,000 adults. Baselice &
of Houston, Texas, conducted the polling. Five hundred interviews were
in both pre- and post-polls, with a margin of error of 4.9 percent at
percent confidence level.
The post-poll showed a shift of 7 percent among the entire population
region, translating into a total of 308,000 adults who switched to the
position. Was this shift perhaps due to other factors, such as the
abortion debate? This question was answered by studying the
which showed that the pro-life shift was entirely among those who
seeing the ads on television. There was no movement in the pro-life
among those who did not recall any such ads.
In fact, the pro-life sentiment among those who recall the ads almost
(from 20 percent in the pre-poll to 36 percent in the post-poll), while
pro-choice position dropped significantly (from 33 percent in the
pre-poll to 25
percent in the post-poll.)
The most recent poll was completed in December 1997 for the
Indiana, market, with data that closely mirrored the Boston results.
sentiment among the entire population increased from 36 percent to 45
Among the target audience of women under age forty-five, the pro-life
increased from 33 percent to 44 percent.
In addition to the Massachusetts and Indiana polls, similar surveys
been completed in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado,
Michigan. Movement in the pro-life direction has been seen in every poll
virtually every question (eight different questions relate to the
issue). The total market reach of the various campaigns underway in the
years totals over forty-six million adults.
Because these ads have proven to be so effective in reaching women,
include an 800 number to help women reach crisis pregnancy centers. Over
thousand calls have been received via these numbers, providing women
counseling and healing needed after the trauma of abortion. This is a
advance for pro-life unity, as direct-service agencies receive enormous
and an increase in clients (all without any charge to them), and the
message is simultaneously reaching millions in the general population.
The direct testimony of women who have been affected by these ads is
particularly intense and supports the evidence from the polling data.
I found myself so depressed that I could hardly get out of bed. I
to work. I just curled myself into a ball and cried and cried over the
I had undergone about one year earlier. I felt so guilty and so alone.
TV ad came on with an 800 number and I knew God was reaching out to me. I
the number and the people at Daybreak were there to help. . . . Now my
life has changed. . . . I have a chaste relationship with my new
boyfriend. . .
. I am attending a weekly Bible study. My job is going great. . . ."
A new wave of ads is now being developed based on another "right
research study conducted in 1997. Whereas the first study focused on
who were conflicted on the issue, the second study included only women
already made the choice to abort or to keep the child. While the full
of this report lies outside the scope of this article, a key finding was
was termed the "locus of control" or "character maintenance" within each
A new ad is now being tested that is based on this latest research:
[A young woman is jogging through city streets. It is raining. As she
her inner thoughts are made audible.] "Everyone’s telling me how I
. . . It’s not like I planned to get pregnant. Not now. [Referring to
boyfriend, shown in brief flashback.] Telling me how to feel, what to
not sticking around when it really counts. So now it’s all up to me. But
abortion? Not me. I have to live with myself. [Pause. She runs into
skies clearing.] We’ll make it. Yeah, we’ll make it just fine."
The ad’s three objectives are to engender admiration for carrying a
to term, to present a woman who serves as a role model, and, in a
nonconfrontational way, to put abortion in the negative.
It is significant to compare these objectives with the comments made
in focus groups who were asked for their response:
"That’s just like me back then. Cold, rainy. It says a lot. She’s
determined. It gives me a good feeling. Within herself she’s strong."
"Hits home. True to life. . . . I feel her strength. It is okay to
"You can feel the stress she’s having. You know it’s not the happy
thing, but she’s standing up. She’s doing what’s best. She’s
strong woman jogging instead of sitting down, ‘poor little me.’"
These responses suggest that a campaign of carefully produced ads
encourage a "culture of life" ethic. Using language and imagery that
attract rather than alienate, the pro-life movement must show that
actually not in a woman’s own self-interest, and that the choice of life
hope and a positive, expanded sense of self.
It should be noted that descriptions of fetal development and even
abortion pictures can still be used to great effect with certain
particularly among people already disposed to the pro-life message and
means to activate pro-lifers. Further, the means shown here for
effective strategy to reach women are not necessarily transferable to
intending to effect political and legislative change. However, in the
mass media to reach the general public, it is vitally important that the
pro-life movement reframe the issue in terms that will be better
The terrible miscalculation of young women is that abortion can make
"un-pregnant," that it will restore them to who they were before their
But a woman is never the same once she is pregnant, whether the child is
adopted, or killed. Abortion may be a kind of resolution, but it is not
the woman most deeply longs for, nor will it even preserve her sense of
those of us in the pro-life movement can help women see this for
will have done much to disengage our culture from the abortion
If pro-lifers are willing to reframe the debate in a way that
can better understand and appreciate, the movement can regain the moral
ground in the mind of the American public, and begin to reach
very women who most need the pro-life message.
Paul Swope is Northeast Project Director of the Caring Foundation and
President of LifeNet Services, Inc.
This article first appeared in the journal First Things.