As Men Fumble Message, Pro-Life Cause Gains Ground

Many pro-life politicians have been communicating to women that they don't understand the concerns of women

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Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks at the National Right to Life Convention at the Hyatt Regency DFW International Airport Hotel in Grapevine, Texas, on June 27, 2013.
Stewart F. House / Getty Images

Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks at the National Right to Life Convention at the Hyatt Regency DFW International Airport hotel in Grapevine, Texas, on June 27, 2013

Last week, Texas Governor Rick Perry chose to talk about the teenage pregnancy of one of his political foes. “It is just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example,” he said about Wendy Davis, the Democratic Texas state senator who had filibustered a bill that would have outlawed abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. Immediately, the pro-choice community reacted with outrage, casting it as yet another attack in the so-called Republican War on Women.

“Rick Perry’s remarks are incredibly condescending and insulting to women,” said Cecile Richards, head of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. But pro-choice advocates weren’t the only ones flinching at Perry’s comments. “I always think that talking about motivation and unrelated personal history is a mistake,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that gave about $250,000 to pro-life candidates in the 2012 election cycle.

The issue for Dannenfelser has little to do with Perry himself. She is, in fact, a huge fan and praised his decision last week to call another special session that is likely to result in new regulations for abortion providers and a ban on most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. For Dannenfelser and other pro-life strategists, the mistake was giving pro-choice advocates another chance to define the debate over abortion as an attack on women. “The No. 1 issue is staying in the defensive and letting the other side define you,” Dannenfelser said.

And Perry’s decision to make a personal attack was just the latest in a long stream of statements by prominent Republican men that have been messaging gifts for Democrats. The most prominent, of course, was the falsehood uttered by former Missouri candidate Todd Akin about a woman’s ability to shut down reproduction in the event of “legitimate rape.” It was followed by Richard Mourdock, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, who said that even in the “horrible situation of rape,” a pregnancy was something that “God intended to happen.” Such comments did not end with the election season. Just a few weeks ago, a similar wave of outrage greeted comments by Representative Trent Franks of Arizona, after he claimed that “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low.”

Each of these statements has provided messaging challenges for pro-life advocates, who have otherwise been enjoying enormous success nationwide. Since 2010, a dozen states have passed legislation similar to the bill being considered in Texas, which imposes new regulatory burdens on abortion providers and places new limits on abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. Recent national polling by Gallup has also shown a recent drop in self-identified pro-choice voters, from 49% in 2011 to 41% in 2012.

The problem for the cause, says Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, is that many pro-life politicians have been communicating to women that they don’t understand the concerns of women. “Women don’t just look at politicians and say, ‘Do I like you?’ but [also] ‘Do you get me?'” said Conway. “There is tremendous opportunity for the pro-life community to get out of the fetal position.”

At a House Republican retreat in January, she advised the party to stop attacking messengers of the pro-choice cause and stick to the issue of restrictions to late-term abortions, which polls show tend to garner broad support. “Rape,” she told the retreat, “is a four-letter word, and therefore purge it from your lexicon.”

Part of the problem, Conway says, is that much of the messaging is being done by men in the party, without much thought about how women will respond. “What you end up seeing with Akin and Franks and Rick Perry, part of it is, Who did you talk to this week?” she said, noting that many politicians lack female consultants and advisers.

But on a national level, the pro-life movement has been trying to fix the problem, taking a page from the pro-choice handbook, by making women the point people for delivering their message. Despite the attention garnered by Franks, the recent House bill to limit late-term abortions was managed by Republican Representatives Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Virginia Foxx of North Carolina.

On Monday, in Texas, state senator Donna Campbell kicked off the next round of the state’s abortion debate with a press conference that featured nearly a dozen women who had abortions and later regretted their decision. “You cannot inflict pain and suffering on the child without inflicting pain and suffering on the mother,” one of the women explained.

It was a clear indication that pro-life activists will not allow the next round of debate to turn out like the last round, which ended with a dramatic standoff between state senator Davis, Governor Perry and Lieut. Governor David Dewhurst. At candidate trainings for pro-life politicians, Dannenfelser has also been telling politicians to avoid mistakes that distract from the central message. “We say address the issue that you are being confronted with that cuts against you 80%. Then make sure every time you are addressing the overall position,” she said, noting polls that suggest rape exceptions to abortion bans are popular. “I have yet to find a pro-rape candidate, or a pro-I-don’t-care-about-women candidate.”