Pro-Choice Advocates Deliver a Different Message on Abortion

<i> Kay Mills is an editorial writer for The Times. </i>

A vigorous campaign is under way to remind the Reagan Administration, Congress and the country at large that real women have abortions and that fetuses are not the only factor in the abortion debate. There are elements of the campaign strategy that are new, and elements not so new, but all are aimed at preserving abortion as a choice for American women.

The not-so-new: Planned Parenthood Federation ran two full-page advertisements in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune last month, including coupons to send to Congress urging renewed funding of abortion for poor women and support for federal family-planning money, and to seek a Justice Department investigation of anti-abortionists’ pledge to conduct a “year of fear and pain” against women contemplating legal abortions.

The advertisements have been reported as a new strategy, but are not, said Faye Wattleton, Planned Parenthood president. For the last 10 years, she explained, her organization has concentrated on the woman, sending the message that legal abortion should remain an option while people are educated to avoid the need for abortion through use of birth-control methods. “This campaign reinforces that message,” Wattleton said.

“It may be perceived as new within the context of the climate of anti-abortion groups who have decided to focus only on the fetus,” she said, citing the use by anti-abortion groups of a film, “The Silent Scream,” purporting to show the death throes of a fetus in an abortion.


What is new in the pro-choice strategy is a page borrowed from President Reagan’s book. In his speeches, he likes to read letters to add a sense of public support for his decisions. As women renew their drive to protect abortion rights, they are writing letters filled with positive feelings about abortion, after years of speaking cautiously. And they are reading them aloud, in public.

“I am sick and tired of men in high places making policy and laws which govern decisions on moral issues of which they could not possibly have any understanding, those laws which seem to govern the bodies of girls and women and the decisions they have to make concerning whether or not to have an abortion,” wrote a 60-year-old woman who had an abortion as a teen-ager to avoid ruining the marriage of the man involved in her pregnancy. She never doubted having done the right thing.

The National Abortion Rights Action League has sponsored the reading of these letters across the country. For the league, it is a move into the arena of emotion after years of centering its action on hard, quiet maneuvering in the courts, in the legislative corridors and in the political arena of candidate endorsements and fund-raising. Cooperating in this campaign are such groups as Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress, the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Many of the letters are from women who might otherwise have given birth to children with grave defects. One of them complains that doctors had “made me feel like a murderer” for having an abortion.


But many letters are from a new source. Previously, those who favored a choice have said nobody likes abortion, but it is necessary. Now more women are willing to affirm that while abortion is always a difficult choice, positive things can result, says Nanette Falkenberg, executive director of the abortion-rights league. Such accounts relate youthful mistakes, lives that would have been ruined or health jeopardized forever, eventual parenthood better handled with emotional maturity and economic security. It is a risky strategy because the opposition may point its finger and accuse the women who step forward of sin or selfishness.

The debate over abortion has gone on for decades. Why have tactics changed?

“We were looking at the bombings of abortion clinics, at the film ‘The Silent Scream’ about supposed fetal pain, at Reagan’s involvement, and people were saying, ‘We’ve got to respond. We’ve got to respond differently,’ ” Falkenberg said. “All people were seeing in ‘The Silent Scream’ was a womb as a visual; there was no body connected to it. We--women--have to get back into this debate. And it’s not just women, but also the men who help make the decisions.”

Wattleton of Planned Parenthood agreed. “This campaign does not reflect any desperation,” she said. The tenor of the debate has shifted because of bombings “benignly tolerated” by anti-abortion groups, because of anti-abortion attacks on vice presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro and New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo during last year’s election campaign and because of the emotionalism of “The Silent Scream,” Wattleton said. “We simply cannot take for granted rights fought for so hard and won.”


And challenges do remain. This fall the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act and an appeal on the unconstitutionality of various aspects of the Illinois abortion law. Congress is also being pressed to restrict foreign-aid funds for organizations that use their own money to finance clinics at which abortion is one family-planning option. Even the bills to restore interpretation of laws against discrimination on college campuses have become a pawn as opponents threaten to tie up that legislation with anti-abortion amendments.

New strategy or not so new, the campaign puts the choice groups back in the main arena with those who view abortion as murder. And whatever the reasons for the strategy, it is useful to point out that abortion is still legal, and that a recent ABC poll shows that now a majority of Americans feel abortion should be available for any reason.

Women have told their stories before, in the days before the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Then they spoke of sleazy clinics with no sanitation, of clumsy attempts to induce their own abortions with coat hangers, of women who died at the hands of back-alley abortionists. Leaders of Planned Parenthood, the abortion-rights league and other groups fear that, with the change of one or two votes on the Supreme Court, these horror stories will occur again.

Since 1973, there are happier stories. A woman who was pregnant at 18 writes, “The availability of a licensed abortion facility provided me with the opportunity to conceive, at a later date, in a uterus free from the scars of laceration and infection, and has given me the opportunity to establish myself as a productive citizen before bearing children.


“Never have I laid awake at night feeling guilt or regret. I do not live in anguish, but rather I praise the options that were available to me. Today I am the mother of a daughter born from love and choice.”

The two sides may never agree. But the stories, by letter and lecture, are there for any who will listen.