In the American midterm elections this week, five states—California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, and Vermont—held referendums on abortion issues, with tragic outcomes. Voters in Michigan and California essentially enshrined abortion until birth, and Montana rejected mandatory medical care for infants who survive abortions. It's an indication that in a post-Dobbs United States, pro-abortion Democrats are adopting a playbook similar to that of activists in Ireland prior to the 2018 Irish abortion referendum. Now that Roe has been overturned, the pro-life movement must learn to combat the abortion movement's direct-democracy strategy.
The voting public can generally be divided into three key groups: hardcore pro-lifers, hardcore abortion supporters, and what strategists refer to as the “mushy middle”—those who find the abortion movement's agenda to be extreme but still support abortion in certain circumstances. It is this group that activists on both sides must persuade, and in direct democracy referendums, abortion activists have several significant advantages.
For one thing, they own the media. In Ireland, it didn’t matter that multiple investigations established that Savita Halappanavar had not died due to being denied an abortion. What mattered was that the media incessantly published assertions that she had, creating a simple, powerful narrative: that the Irish constitution's 8th Amendment was responsible for a woman’s death. Even though Middle Ireland did not support abortion on demand, the media persuaded them that women would die if they did not vote for repeal. Activists didn’t have to sell abortion on demand. They simply had to persuade the mushy middle that pro-life laws killed women.
Similar scenarios played out in the midterm abortion referendums in the U.S. A relentless torrent of newspaper stories, commercials, and social media ads hammered this simple narrative: Vote for abortion, or women will die. Pro-lifers pushed back on these claims, but their rebuttals did not receive the same coverage—and indeed, were often directly contradicted by the media. As the saying goes: In politics, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. Pro-lifers have been forced into constantly explaining.
It is difficult for those complex responses to break through the roar of the simple, media-amplified “pro-choice” message—especially when abortion activists have not only the support of the mainstream media, but enormous war chests supplied by the abortion industry and sympathetic donors. This was true in Ireland, and it is true for the abortion battles in the U.S. In Michigan, for example, Reproductive Freedom for All raised at least $40.2 million and spent at least $22.5 million on midterm election ads. The pro-life coalition, by contrast, raised just $16.9 million. Abortion activists have access to far greater funds,pro-lifers during the midterms by 35 to 1.
In the lead-up to the Irish referendum, pro-lifers had a far superior grassroots ground game, a fact so obvious that the media openly worried about it. Anti-abortion activists knocked on millions of doors and spent weeks on the road. In Michigan and elsewhere, pro-lifers also hit the doors and overpasses in impressive numbers. But in each of these instances, the ground game advantage could not overcome the nonstop ads coming at voters from every screen and the institutional biases that had pro-abortion “fact-checkers” countering the pro-life message. Big Tech’s progressive tilt also ensures that pro-lifers have a more difficult time spreading their arguments online (in Ireland, Google actually decided to suspend advertisements after pro-life ads appeared to be having an impact). The silent majority isn’t pro-life. It isn’t pro-abortion, either. But the key tools of persuasion are in the hands of abortion activists.
Then there is the inherent tension between pro-life activists and pro-life politicians. Most pro-life activists oppose abortion—the killing of a pre-born child—in any circumstances. Politicians seek to legislate from the common ground, which in most red states constitutes abortion restrictions with exceptions carved out. This allows abortion activists to hammer pro-life politicians on a handful of rare circumstances (rape and incest, for example), putting them firmly offside with the majority of the American public. Politicians who put forward pro-life laws with exceptions are often condemned by activists who see these carve-outs as a fundamental betrayal of innocent children. This dynamic further complicates direct democracy initiatives—pro-lifers spend much time defending our most unpopular positions, while abortion activists avoid discussing theirs.
The pro-life movement must respond in two ways. First, from an educational perspective, we must simplify our message. Our most powerful argument is victim photography, the pictorial evidence of what happens to a baby during an abortion. Pollingon the way people view abortion, removing the issue from the abstract realm of “healthcare” and confronting the public with the reality of a human being with a face. Dr. Michael New recently was successful in a 1972 Michigan referendum (and indeed, groups like Created Equal regularly employ these tactics). If we do not show people what abortion is, they cannot understand the stakes.
Second, from a political perspective, it is essential to blunt the advantages that direct democracy lends to the abortion movement. (Although it bears mentioning, as New points out, that pro-lifers successfully used direct democracy to end tax funding of abortion in West Virginia in 2018 and to achieve parental consent laws in Montana, Alaska, and Florida.) It is true that the pro-life movement experienced devastating losses during the midterms. It is also true that governors who signed strong pro-life laws—Ron DeSantis (FL), Greg Abbott (TX), and Mike DeWine (OH)—swept to victory by wide margins. States have been consistently passing pro-life laws, and those laws have already resulted in a. Despite setbacks, despair is unwarranted.
In the words of Christen Pollo of Protect Life Michigan, one of many tireless activists who left it all on the field: “We mourn today. But tomorrow, we get back to work. It is now up to all of us to be advocates for the unborn. We are needed now more than ever. Rest assured: if abortion doesn’t stop, neither do we.”
Jonathon Van Maren is the author of Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement.
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