Abortion rights advocates try to change opinion with deep personal conversations

It’s Saturday, and Sarah Mahoney is one of the Planned Parenthood volunteers knocking door-to-door in Windham, Maine, a politically moderate town not far from Portland.

No one answered in the first two houses. But when Mahoney was walking down the street, she saw a woman walking.

“Hey! Do you mind talking to us?” she said.

Mahoney wants to talk about abortion – not a typical topic for a conversation, especially with a stranger. But the woman, Kerry Kelchner, agreed to talk. If this were a typical through-the-door, Mahoney might ask Kelchner about a political candidate, prompt her to vote, and then hit the road. But Mahoney is working on insight — a technique that uses longer conversations to shift opinions on salient issues.

Planned Parenthood in Maine has been running the strategy for several years amid what it sees as increasing threats to reproductive rights. This year alone, states have enacted more than 100 regulations restricting abortion, including one in Texas that outlaws most abortions after six weeks. This month, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in a case about a Mississippi law that could lead to an overturn. Roe v. WadeThe landmark 1973 ruling established the constitutional right to abortion. And although state law in Maine protects the right to an abortion even if Roe v. Wade Overturned, anti-abortionists have gained traction in the state in recent years. So volunteers like Mahoney start conversations. And they can get pretty personal.

Mahoney first rated Kelchner’s basic attitudes about access to abortion on a scale of 0 to 10. A score of 10 means that respondents believe anyone can have an abortion for any reason. for what.

Kelchner says she is 7 years old.

Next, Mahoney asked Kelchner a series of questions to better understand her worth.

“Can you tell me a little bit about what has shaped your views on abortion?” she asked. “Do you know anyone who had an abortion, a friend or a family member?”

“My mother,” Kelchner said. She explained that her parents were young when she was born and they weren’t ready for another child.

Later, Mahoney, 60, shared that she also had an abortion. She said: “I am just over 20 years old. “I’m a bit conflicted about that, and I want a family. I know I want a family, but I’m in no way ready to do it.”

Mahoney points out that she and Kelchner have similar views on what it means to have an unwanted pregnancy. She then asked her opening question again, to see if Kelchner’s feelings about accessing abortion varied on a scale of 0 to 10.

“Still about seven years old,” Kelchner said.

Mahoney probed further. “What if you said, ‘No – they don’t have the right to have an abortion?’

Kelchner paused. “That’s a good question.”

They talk more. Ultimately, Kelchner can’t think of any cases where she believes someone should be denied an abortion.

“Don’t judge,” she said.

“So that would be a 10?” Mahoney asked.

“That’s right,” Kelchner said.

In the five years she’s been actively involved in Planned Parenthood, Mahoney says, she hasn’t had a single nasty conversation.

“What we’ve found in doing this is an effective way to change minds about abortion,” said Amy Cookson, director of external communications for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

Cookson said Planned Parenthood began sweeping operations in Maine in 2015, after Paul LePage, an anti-abortion Republican, won a second term as governor. Gay rights advocates in California have used insightful opinions on the issue of same-sex marriage, and she wonders: “Can it solve the stigma about abortion? ?”

Joshua Kalla, a political scientist at Yale University, has Conduct research discovered that this technique can change people’s profound beliefs. The key elements are that participants listen without judgment and share their own stories.

“So whether the person has had an abortion and is talking about their abortion story,” says Kalla, “or whether the person is an ally and is talking about a friend or family member who had an abortion, pregnant and sharing the story or not, the effects seem to be quite similar. “

Kalla also has studied Planned Parenthood’s efforts in Maine, and says the group has added something else that’s been very effective: a moral reshaping. Canvassers listen to the moral values ​​a voter emphasizes and then incorporate those values ​​into the story they share.

But deep exploration isn’t just a progressive tactic, says Kalla. Conservative groups can also use it, and he thinks that will improve political discourse: “You know, it would be good for American society if the way we had political dialogue was more grounded, listened to listen to the other side and not judge, and be curious. “

Back in Windham, Mahoney continued his walk through the neighborhood. She meets a man outside his apartment building who gives only his name, Chris. He says he ranks 4th on the abortion accessibility scale. He opposes abortion except in cases of sexual assault. Chris told Mahoney that he had a daughter when he was 15 years old.

“Are you talking about, I’m curious, birth control and abortion?” Mahoney asked.

Chris said: “I do a lot with her. He said she was a teenager, and he wasn’t sure what he would do if she accidentally got pregnant.

“It was her own life,” he said. “I don’t know if I was trying to change her mind. Because it was her decision.”

As the conversation continued, Chris seemed to support access to abortion. But in the end, he didn’t budge on his ratings.

Mahoney says its okay. Some people won’t change their mind right away.

“The worst way to think about this is that it’s some sort of Jedi mind trick,” she said, “and I’ll let them talk about themselves and then – pow! – I will change their decision. ”

What Mahoney most wanted from these conversations was for people to think more deeply about the nuances surrounding abortion and identify common ground: “I feel like we all need to do this. Take steps to listen to each other and move toward each other, instead of just diving. into this divided, contrasting, hostile, red and blue world. “

Because of the success Planned Parenthood in Maine has achieved with its activism, it has trained volunteers in other states, including Texas and Kansas. Next year, Kansas voters will vote on referendum question seek to revoke access to abortion as a fundamental right.

This story is part of a collaboration that includes Maine Public Radio, NPR and KHN.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom specializing in the production of in-depth coverage of health issues. Along with Policy Analysis and Exploration, KHN is one of the three main activities in KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). The KFF is a nonprofit organization privileged to provide information on health issues to the nation.


This story can be republished for free (details).

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