The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Mr. Claybrook and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Legal Foundation.
The recent defeats of pro-life referendums in Kansas, Michigan, and Ohio should have pro-life advocates more than concerned. After struggling for 50 years to get Roe and then Casey overruled, that victory seems to be running into a buzzsaw of ballot box defeats. And these defeats have been in states where pro-life forces, based on polling numbers and historical indications, expected a better showing. Indeed, the recent proxy referendum of Ohio residents (to make it more difficult to amend the state constitution so as to disadvantage a slate of pro-abortion referendum amendments) indicated that the pro-abortion constitutional referendums to be placed on the ballot in November will pass overwhelmingly. And pro-abortion forces plan to go the “referendum route” to enshrine abortion rights into the constitutions of many other states, something that the Dobbs decision permits.
The answer to this dilemma is not that the pro-life forces are getting outspent or are not arguing loudly or forcefully enough. It is that pro-life forces are being beaten in the PR battle. Pro-life forces need a better sound bite.
The Pro-Abortion Forces So Far Have Had a Better Sound Bite
The Dobbs majority had the better of the legal reasoning, but it seems that voters have been more impressed by the lament of the Dobbs dissenters. It is dastardly, the dissenters complained, for the Court to take away from women a “right” on which women had relied for fifty years. The dissenters were sure, after all, that the elective abortion right was critical to any advances made by women in society over that period, especially the business world.
There is little doubt that parroting the dissenters makes an easy talking point for the pro-abortion advocates: “The Court is taking away women’s rights!!” “Taking away rights is un-American!!” “We shouldn’t go backwards on human rights!!” As a general matter, even if we voters don’t want to exercise a particular right ourselves, we don’t like the idea of rights being taken away from others. They might come for our own rights next.
This “don’t take away rights” approach sold well in Kansas, Ohio, and Michigan. In each state, the pro-abortion advocates complained that adoption of the amendment would take away the rights of women. In Kansas, for example, voters soundly defeated the pro-life referendum, 59% to 41%. The pro-abortion advocates complained that adoption of the amendment would take away the rights of women, while the pro-life supporters, calling the referendum the “value them both” amendment, trumpeted that it would allow the legislature to adopt reasonable limits on the abortion license. It really should come as no surprise that “Don’t restrict my rights” beat “Trust me to be reasonable about how much I restrict your rights.” It will win every time.
The Pro-Life Forces Must Get a Better Sound Bite: Slavery Is It
There is a simpler sound bite that packs as much emotional punch, if not more, than “Don’t take away women’s rights!!” Even if people do not want to grapple with the question of when, exactly, an unborn child becomes an actual human being with the same rights as a born person, they know that what is developing in the mother is alive. And they know that, instead of treating that living being as another person, the woman is treating her baby as her property to do with as she will. That is what slavery, our country’s greatest scourge, was all about.
The pro-life forces should waste no time in linking abortion with slavery. A campaign with messages trumpeted such as “Abortion Treats Unborn Children As Slaves,” “Unborn Babies Aren’t a Mother’s Property,” and “Unborn Babies Are Not Slaves” would pack a powerful rhetorical punch. It would tar pro-abortion supporters with the slavery brush.
We in the pro-life movement need to continue to marshal our legal arguments and to present them to the courts and the legislatures in the most sophisticated ways possible. But the voters, as a whole, don’t read Supreme Court opinions or legal briefs. They vote based on sound bites they hear for a few seconds a day and on slogans printed on bumper stickers and billboards. The pro-abortion proponents, mirroring the Dobbs dissenters, have had the best of the PR battle in that regard so far. It’s time we in the pro-life community did a better PR job and seized the rhetorical high ground by labeling abortion for what it is: treating an unborn baby as property, as a slave.