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Thursday, February 19, 2009

How to Beat an Abortion Ban (Pay Attention, North Dakota)

Every now and then I check back in on Pastor Steve Hickey hoping for a few laughs. I should know better.

This afternoon we get the standard misuse of language (nobody is pro-abortion), Bob and Steve talking to themselves, and then someone goes off the rails, commenting that "Witchcraft, paganism, and the goddesses doomed the fate and destiny of babies and women in South Dakota in November."

What twists their righteous knickers today is an article in Politics Magazine by Connie Lewis and Nathan Peterson explaining how they built the coalition and campaign that beat South Dakota's retread abortion ban in 2008. They lay out the key points of their winning campaign:
  1. Focus on the law's consequences.
  2. Exercise extreme message discipline.
  3. Develop a broad coalition.
  4. Use grassroots communications to fill in the gaps.
Not exactly profound or revolutionary campaign strategy. Pastor Hickey thinks he has hay to make out of Lewis and Peterson's statement (admission, Hickey would call it, wishing he could play Inquisitor) that "avoiding debate over the morality of abortion" to focus instead on the specific consequences of Initiated Measure 11 was part of their successful strategy.

But the campaign strategy is nothing folks couldn't figure out, and Hickey's response is nothing Lewis, Peterson, and the rest of us haven't heard before. Reading this article, one can almost hear Lewis and Peterson saying, "Bring it. We know how Hickey and Unruh will respond, and we don't care. We won, and we can win again. This strategy works, and this message makes sense."

"Avoiding debate over the morality of abortion" was exactly the right strategy. South Dakotans weren't being asked to vote on a declaration of morality. They were being asked to vote on a poorly written, impractical law that would not achieve its purported aims. People voted the ban down because, even if they don't like abortion (and again, nobody likes abortion), they recognized that the law on the ballot was bad public policy. Sometimes a childishly simple morality isn't enough to formulate practical, effective laws.

Alas, our neighbors in North Dakota are now refighting this battle. Defenders of women's rights in ND, take your cues from Lewis and Peterson. We don't get to dress up our crusade in Morality and Scripture. We have to settle for rationality and plain old practical government.

Fortunately, as Lewis, Peterson, and the 2008 South Dakota election prove, that sometimes complicated but always rational message does indeed resonate with a healthy majority.

For a view from the other side, read the admission explanation from public affairs consultants Frank Schubert and Jeff Flint that fundraising, message control, and focus on consequences were just as important to the success of California's Prop 8.


  1. If no one is pro abortion then everyone must be against it.


  2. Yup, and South Dakotans are obviously grown up enough to know that the vote was indeed about a terrible proposed law not a referendum on abortion itself.


  3. [Note to commenters: use your own name, remain Anonymous, your choice. But if you don't have the guts to claim our own public statements, don't pretend to use my name. Not cool.]

  4. There is 3 comments. Why is nobody reading? Someone please tell me. What can I do different?

  5. Pay attention, anonymous:

    Snarkiness is only funny when the writer is 1) not ignorant about the subject of the snark and 2) uses the snark to express an opinion (not an echo of someone else's ignorant rant (eg Limbaugh).

    And, I think I'll add rule 3: Snark is more successful when one has the self-respect to identify oneself.

  6. Cory,
    Why do you say "nobody likes abortion"?

  7. Because, drk, I have yet to find an example of anyone who does. Feel free to provide a counterexample—and that doesn't mean just labeling me or other politically active people "pro-aborts." Extend the argument, show a genuine example of someone who says (something like) "Abortion is a great thing that I would like to see happen more often."

  8. Hey Cory, I'll try and help.

    What I mean when I try to explain to folks that no one is "pro-abortion" is that pro-choicers support a woman's (family's) right to choose her/their own fate. A pregnant woman has many options including adoption and social programs that will make it easier to keep her child. What pro-choicers work so hard to accomplish is to keep abortion safe and legal and one of her many options.

  9. Why do people not like abortion, or why are they not "pro-abortion"? (Perhaps that is the way to phrase my question.)

  10. I really wish self-labeled "pro-lifers", including you, drk, would read what grownups have to say about it instead of labeling people and drawing battle lines.

    A good place to start is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American's statement on the issue. There are many others.


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