Co-Opting Choice One Woman at a Time

By Ziad Munson

The abortion debate has mobilized millions of people and hundreds of millions of dollars in the United States over the last 40 years.  What is perhaps most surprising about the battle over abortion, then, is that public opinion toward abortion has remained remarkably and stubbornly stable over this time.  According to Gallup polls, approximately 52 percent of Americans today believe abortion should be legal under some, but not all, circumstances—not very different from the 51 percent in 2002, 53 percent in 1992, 52 percent in 1981, or 54 percent in 1975.  The ideological debate over abortion during this period has remained stable too: the pro-life movement has focused on the humanity of the fetus, and sees abortion as the killing of a human being; the pro-choice movement has focused on the rights of women, and sees abortion as a woman’s choice necessary for her to retain control over her own body.

One of the most significant changes to the pro-life movement in recent years is the new way in which it has tried to strengthen the persuasiveness of its own core argument while at the same time co-opting the core argument of its opponents.   And it is the crisis pregnancy centers, not large political lobbying or protest groups, that are at the forefront of these efforts.  Crisis pregnancy centers, or CPCs, are social movement organizations that seek to attract pregnant (or potentially pregnant) women into their doors to convince them to carry their pregnancies to term.  Have you seen billboards or other advertisements in your area that say “Pregnant?  Scared?”  or “Pregnant and Need Help?”  Federations of CPCs are responsible for such ads.  These organizations have existed since the beginning of the pro-life movement—the first were established in the late 1960s—but the number of CPCs has grown rapidly in recent years.  Chris Scheitle at St. John’s University estimates there are approximately 2,900 CPCs nationwide.  To get a sense of this number, compare it to 2,248 Home Depot stores or, of more relevance, to approximately 1,790 abortion providers.

CPCs attract women into their centers through advertising (often offering free pregnancy tests) and referrals from clergy, social workers, and law enforcement. The centers focus on giving the women individual counseling that focuses on the movement’s view of fetal development, the value of life, and the trauma of abortion.  They may also offer a variety of material resources to assist women, including maternity clothes, cribs, diapers and other supplies, and even rental assistance or transportation to pre-natal appointments.  The activists who work in CPCs range from volunteers with just a few hours of training to state-licensed social workers.  CPCs vary in size too, with some consisting of little more than a back room of a church and two or three volunteers, and others owning their own free-standing buildings and employing dozens of staff.

What do CPCs have to do with the core arguments of the abortion debate?   First, CPCs have sought to strengthen the pro-life movement worldview by medicalizing their look and operation.  Centers models themselves after medical clinics, with antiseptic waiting rooms, front desks framed by walls of colored file folders, and in some cases even the use of licensed nurses and other medical personnel.  The centerpiece of this medicalization process is the purchase and use of ultrasound machines.  Activists say that the number of pregnant women they convince to carry pregnancies to term goes up dramatically if they are able to show them an ultrasound of the fetus.  This process of medicalization—and specifically the increasing use of ultrasounds—has the potential to strengthen the pro-life argument by taking the core concern of pro-lifers out of the realm of personal opinion and into the realm of science and technology.  Don’t take our word for it, the activists seem to be saying, look at how this sophisticated, scientific ultrasound machine can prove that it’s a baby!  The core argument of the movement is thus transformed from a moral claim to a scientific (and technologically mediated) fact.

But the rise of CPCs mean more than just the potential for strengthening the pro-life movement’s core argument.  CPCs also serve to challenge their opponents’ monopoly over the language and rhetoric of choice.  Activists working in CPCs argue that many women don’t have a meaningful choice to carry their pregnancies to term because they don’t have the emotional support, or the material resources, to do so.   CPCs see themselves as filling that gap; providing women with counseling and material support so that they have a meaningful choice between alternatives.   Such a view represents a significant threat to the core argument of the pro-choice movement.  Many pro-choice activists, and most of the pro-choice public, are not so much in favor of abortion as they are in favor of leaving reproductive decision-making to women themselves.  But if CPCs are “merely” offering better or expanded choices, then the central master frame of the pro-choice movement is compromised.   The dynamics of the abortion debate in the coming decades will be altered dramatically if CPCs are able to convince many outside the movement that they are the true purveyors of choice.

This challenge is reinforced by the activist and demographic profile of CPC volunteers.  CPCs eschew street protest, legal challenges, and overt politics—indeed, most centers will not even allow their volunteers to be involved in such activity.   They are staffed and run largely at the grassroots level, involving tens of thousands of activists nationwide.  And activists tend to be older, more female, and wealthier than activists in the rest of the movement (or indeed, in many contemporary American social movements).  All of these factors give CPCs a more sympathetic profile to observers outside of the movement—a far cry from the angry (male) protestors pushing and shoving outside of abortion clinics in the 1980s—and thus contribute to CPCs’  potential impact through changing the ideological terms in which the debate is fought and in which public opinion is formed.

Will they be successful in affecting such a change?  On the one hand, past history suggests not.  Despite the many changes in the abortion debate, and American society generally, public opinion has changed little over the issue.  Why should this change in the pro-life movement prove any different?  On the other hand, social movement scholars don’t fully understand why public opinion over abortion has remained so static.  It may be this stability is an important lesson in the difficulty social movements have in making an impact on society.  Or it may be this stability reflects two well-organized and well-resourced movements effectively cancelling the efforts of each other out.  How the pro-choice movement responds to the challenge of CPCs may therefore play an important role in determining how opinion over the issue will change in the coming decades.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Roe at 40

9 responses to “Co-Opting Choice One Woman at a Time

  1. Lara

    Presenting CPCs as an evil plot to undermine the pro-choice movement seems unfortunate. What if some women really do want to keep a pregnancy, if they can get enough financial and practical assistance to pull through? How do abortion clinics do, in those terms? Good counselors will know how to ask the right questions, and refer women who want to keep their pregnancies given some financial assistance to the right social services and private service organizations. How many clinics offer this kind of counseling? Pro-choice activists tend to vote for social services for families and children, so I know the intention is there; how can it be incorporated into the pro-choice movement, so that CPCs are not a threat? Wouldn’t it be better if we could cheer on any organization that wanted to give assistance to a woman struggling to raise her children?


  2. Ryan

    Lara – well said. As a Lehigh grad, I am ashamed yet unsurprised that Ziad presented CPCs the way that he did.


  3. As Executive Director of Vision for Life – Pittsburgh, an organization that advertises pregnancy medical centers in our area, I can say that statistics for abortions and live births in our county suggest that advertising these centers has a major impact on abortion numbers. See, for the details.


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