Thanks to the growing emphasis on women’s personal experiences with pregnancy decisions, some advocates have started calling 2014 “the year of the abortion story.” It’s easy to see why. Reproductive rights activists have recently launched new organizations, organized events on college campuses, and hosted the first-ever live streamed abortion speakout — all with the goal of giving women more opportunities to share their stories with the world.
That allows the women who have had abortions to connect in new ways. But there’s also a political “theory of change” behind that model: If more people hear about the circumstances of women’s individual lives that led them to end a pregnancy, perhaps that will translate into more public support for legal abortion.
And now, the preliminary results from a research project on political canvassing provide some concrete evidence to back up that theory. According to a team of researchers led by UCLA doctoral candidate Michael LaCour, when abortion opponents have an in-person conversation with a woman who’s chosen to end a pregnancy, they’re more likely to shift their view about whether the procedure should be legal.
LaCour and his team are pioneers in the field of public opinion research. They’ve designed several longitudinal studies to examine the impact that door-to-door canvassing can have on people’s attitudes toward “hot button” social issues.
Earlier this month, they published the groundbreaking results from an experiment that involved training both gay and straight volunteers to talk to conservative voters about LGBT equality. They found that speaking with a gay canvasser for about 20 minutes helped nudge conservatives’ attitudes in a more progressive direction — a shift that was even evident nine months after that conversation took place. The researchers are currently teaming up with Planned Parenthood to conduct a similar study into Americans’ attitudes toward abortion, using both volunteers who have personal experiences with abortion and volunteers who don’t.
So far, the abortion study is returning similar results as the LGBT one did. The researchers found that canvassers were able to increase public support for legal abortion by 10 percent. In initial surveys, about 39 percent of voters said they supported legal abortion access; then, after talking with the volunteers who knocked on their doors, that support rose to nearly 50 percent.
“Although the results from the second study are still preliminary, so far — six months later — they have held,” reports U.S. News & World Report. “While all volunteers changed minds, women who previously had abortions and chose to tell voters about their experiences achieved the most lasting impact.”
There are a couple different ways researchers were able to measure that impact. For one, they found somewhat of a ripple effect among the people who heard a woman’s personal abortion story. They were more likely to tell other members of their households about the conversation they had with the canvassers. On his website, LaCour writes that the persuasive effect of listening to a woman talk about her own abortion experience was “subsequently transmitted to housemates.”
Plus, there’s some evidence that the personal abortion stories softened the impact of national news related to abortion. After the Supreme Court struck down Massachusetts’ buffer zone around abortion clinics, the news event solidified the anti-abortion attitudes among most of the participants in the study — except among the voters who had recently spoken with a woman who disclosed she had an abortion. “This finding suggests that discussion at the doorstep affected the way in which people subsequently received and interpreted the news,” LaCour concludes.
Even without the final data in this field, many of the women who decide to share their personal abortion stories are intuitively hoping for this kind of outcome. According to qualitative interviews conducted by Sea Change, a group that works with people who have health experiences that are traditionally stigmatized, about a third of participants chose to talk about their abortion as a “political action.”
“We want to put women and our stories and our families back at the center of the political debate around abortion,” Deb Hauser, the president for Advocates for Youth, the group that spearheaded an online abortion speakout last month, recently told ThinkProgress. “It’s about real people’s lives driving policy, as opposed to policy driving our lives.”
Until then, canvassers will continue to knock on doors. Women’s health advocates are thinking about expanding the strategy to other states where reproductive rights have recently come under attack, like Ohio, and they’re optimistic about its implications.
“I was surprised the average voter wanted to talk about this on a Saturday,” Celinda Vazquez, the vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles and one of the people who accompanied LaCour’s team of door-to-door volunteers, told U.S. News. But she said that people were pretty receptive to having conversations about abortion. And she estimated that “minds were changed” in about eight out of the ten households she visited.