Facing Tough Washington Climate, Abortion Foes Move Debate Online
By STEPHANIE SIMON
Wall Street Journal
April 1, 2009
The video is stark, and startling. Against a black background, an ultrasound
image flickers and a story unfolds. "This child's future is a broken home...he
will be abandoned by his father...his single mother will struggle to raise
The classical music in the background rises as the ultrasound fades, replaced by
footage of President Barack Obama addressing an adoring crowd.
The tag line: "Life. Imagine the Potential."
Mr. Obama supports legal abortion. Yet this video by CatholicVote.org -- viewed
nearly 1.8 million times on YouTube since it was posted in January -- has turned
his life story into an advertisement for the antiabortion movement.
The White House declined to comment. The producers describe their 40-second
video as a strategic triumph that can help chart a new course for their movement
as abortion opponents face a hostile climate in Washington, with Democrats
controlling Congress and the White House.
"When you're out of political power, you start thinking about new ways to do
things," said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org. "How do we continue to
His answer: Create provocative online content and rely on the power of viral
networking to spread it widely.
Known in some antiabortion circles as the "hearts and minds" tactic -- as in,
winning hearts and opening minds -- the strategy depends on presenting the
antiabortion movement in an unexpected light, the better to catch and hold
"We're getting beyond the hackneyed ways of holding up posters with graphic
pictures of abortion," said Father Thomas Berg, director of the Westchester
Institute for Ethics and the Human Person. "That just doesn't work."
So CatholicVote.org plans a series of biographical videos along the lines of the
Obama video. The goal is to get people thinking about what the world would be
missing if musicians, athletes and other luminaries with hard-luck life stories
had been aborted.
An antiabortion lobbying group, the Susan B. Anthony List, is offering $2,000 in
prizes for activists as young as elementary school to come up with creative
videos that bring new converts to the cause.
And Lila Rose, a college student in California, has developed an online
following by shooting grainy undercover videos inside Planned Parenthood clinics
across the nation. Ms. Rose poses as a young teen impregnated by a much-older
boyfriend and films her conversations with staff. Using edited footage, she
accuses Planned Parenthood of failing to report her as a victim of statutory
rape. The effect is to present her, and by extension her fellow antiabortion
activists, as crusading protectors of young girls.
Planned Parenthood says the undercover footage is "edited and spliced...to
create propaganda videos," though at least one affiliate took disciplinary
action against staff members seen on Ms. Rose's video.
Proponents of the hearts-and-minds strategy acknowledge they have no way to
measure its effect. But after decades of laboriously building mailing lists one
name at a time, they are thrilled to see their page views mount as their
messages circle the globe. Some say donations are starting to come in with
letters referencing the online videos.
"We're able to reach people directly," said Frank Pavone, national director of
Priests for Life. He stars in a series of matter-of-fact videos that explain how
abortions are performed, with a plastic model of a fetus as a prop. The clip
describing a first-trimester abortion has been viewed more than 680,000 times on
YouTube. "TV networks would never show this type of video," Father Pavone said,
"but now that doesn't matter."
Abortion-rights groups are online, too, of course, using text messages, Twitter,
Facebook, MySpace and YouTube to energize supporters. "All these new tools are
critical for engaging activists," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL
NARAL's cerebral yet funky online video "Free.Will.Power." celebrates the right
to make personal choices and uses animation to raise the specter of big
government peering into bedrooms. It has been viewed about 30,000 times on
Both NARAL and Planned Parenthood also post clips of celebrities and activists
talking about the importance of choice; most haven't attracted near the number
of hits as the antiabortion videos.
Despite their viral appeal, Ms. Keenan dismissed most antiabortion videos as too
shrill to win over the masses. In her view, those clips fail to address the
issues most people care about, such as preventing unintended pregnancies or
preserving women's health.
But some longtime analysts of abortion politics say the right's online campaign
appears to be having an impact.
"Certainly, there's a preaching-to-the-choir effect, but I don't think you can
discount the effect on society over time," said Alesha Doan, a political
scientist at the University of Kansas who supports legalized abortion. "They've
altered the parameters of the discourse."
Ms. Doan said ultrasound images circulating online have been especially helpful
to abortion opponents, because they humanize the fetus. "I've seen a marked
change in how people talk about abortion," especially young adults, Ms. Doan
said. "It's much more favorable to the pro-life movement."
Write to Stephanie Simon at firstname.lastname@example.org