What The Abortion Rights Movement Can Learn From The Marriage Equality Win

by Emma McGowan
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There are two major issues that have to do with sexuality in our culture: Abortion rights and marriage equality. And while the country finally got marriage equality two years ago, abortion rights have taken a beating in the past couple years. Since 2010, we’ve seen over 300 laws passed restricting abortion across the country. Abortion clinics are closing at a rapid rate, making it increasingly difficult for women to access health services. And this is all despite the fact that American opinions about abortion have stayed pretty much the same for almost half a century.

So what gives? Why did marriage equality succeed, while abortion rights activists are struggling harder than ever? Sociologist Dr. Katrina Kimport from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) tells Bustle it’s less about the issues themselves, and more about the structure of individual movements.

“When you look at what makes for social movement influence, no where in the literature does it say, ‘You’ve got to have a good issue,’ right?” Dr. Kimport says. “What we know from decades of social science research in social movements is that, in some ways, the issue itself is not the driver to influence. There’s evidence that structure matters a lot more.”

So it’s not that same-sex marriage is somehow more palatable to the American public than abortion rights — history shows that’s definitely not the case. Instead, Dr. Kimport argues, the structure of the organization is significantly more important than the issue itself. Here’s what she’s found the abortion rights movement can learn from the fight for marriage equality.


You Need A Lot Of Different Types Of Advocacy Groups

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Dr. Kimport says that it’s important to have a “heterogenous organizational structure,” which is social-scientist speak for “groups of different sizes and different levels of radical fighting for the same cause at the national and local level.”

The marriage equality movement had everything from small groups fighting for the right to marry in their towns to big national organizations doing the same. There were legal battles brought to courts by single couples trying to marrying and others that were top-down, instigated by big organizations.

The abortion rights movement, on the other hand, is mainly led by big organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America — groups that were formed in the 1960s and 1970s in order to fight for abortion rights. In Dr. Kimport’s paper on the subject, she points out that the movement used to have a wider, more diverse group of advocates — ranging from far left radicals to mainstream organizations — but that it became “professionalized” and the smaller groups disappeared. However, she argues, it’s exactly the combination of those smaller groups — and the bigger groups and all the groups in between — that leads to success for a social movement.


Your Message Has To Be On Point

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One of the effects of having a limited variety of organizations is that you have fewer audiences available. You also have fewer messages — a move which can be detrimental to social movement success. “You’ve got to have a message that feels true to people’s experience and feels authentic to them,” Dr. Kimport says.

The marriage equality movement spent a long time really perfecting their message. Starting in the early aughts, they shifted the conversation from “rights” to “love and commitment.” It was a shrewd move: Who wants to be the person who argues against love and commitment?

Dr. Kimport says that the “rights” message isn’t resonating with the American public these days — but that’s still the framework used by much of the abortion rights movement. The question that activists should ask themselves, then, is what’s abortion’s “love and commitment” message? What will resonate with the public in a way that “right to choose” just isn’t anymore?


You Have To Win In Politics And In Court

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Finally, if a social movement is going to be successful, it has to have both politicians and the court on its side. Dr. Kimport points to a “snowball” of states passing marriage equality laws in the early 2000s. That set the stage for President Obama to come out in support of marriage equality in 2012 and for the Democratic National Committee to officially make it part of their platform.

But while abortion is officially part of the Democratic platform, it doesn’t garner the same level of vocal support that marriage equality did. Instead, politicians seem to be increasingly distancing themselves from the issue. “Currently, politicians aren’t seeing advocating for abortion as something that’s useful to them in their political life,” Dr. Kimport says.

Making a social movement successful isn’t easy. If it was, these issues would have been won a long time ago. But Dr. Kimport believes that the fight for marriage equality has highlighted certain societal, structural guidelines that can be applied to other social movements. Abortion rights activists, take note — and take heart. It’s possible. It just means making some changes.