The Abortion-Rights Messages That Resonate With Men

10 minute read

When Greg Horwitch recently spoke with a white Kentucky man in his early 70s, he did not expect the man to support abortion rights. But as he asked the man, who grew up in the South and initially planned to be a Catholic priest, about his life, he learned the situation was more nuanced. “He said he’s never had need for an abortion. He’s never known anyone who has spoken of having an abortion,” Horwitch recalls. “It was automatic to be against abortion. But now he’s faced with questions like, ‘If my daughter were pregnant, and something went wrong medically, would she have access to the medical remedy to save her life?’”

Horwitch says he then learned that the man hadn’t thought about abortion as a political issue until this fall, when he realized Kentucky is voting on a proposed amendment that would change the state constitution to say it does not contain the right to abortion. Ultimately, the man remained ambivalent about abortion, but promised to vote against the amendment and even signed up to call more voters like himself.

The call between the two men was part of a joint effort by the network Horwitch co-founded—Organizing White Men for Collective Liberation— along with advocacy group SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), which are working with abortion rights campaigners in Kentucky to reach one million voters as they oppose Amendment 2 ahead of Election Day. But it’s also an example of what abortion rights supporters see as a new and necessary strategy to help them protect reproductive rights in the U.S.: appealing to men.

In the four months since the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned a constitutional right to abortion, progressive activists, researchers, political strategists, and candidates for office have started to try to interest male voters with messages about abortion rights. Previously, abortion was considered a niche, women’s issue and often viewed as tangential to major elections since advocates could challenge laws that violated the protections guaranteed under Roe v. Wade. But now that abortion policy has been returned to the states and reshaped political races around the country, male voters’ opinions about abortion are crucial to the outcomes.

About eight in 10 Americans think abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances, according to Gallup polling, and that support has held steady for years. But even though men are included in that support, researchers have found that they often didn’t know how to talk about the issue or viewed it as a topic where women should lead. “It’s not so much that [men] weren’t supportive, it’s that they weren’t loud about it,” says Angela Vasquez-Giroux, vice president of communications and research at NARAL Pro-Choice America, one of the country’s largest abortion rights advocacy groups. “What we’re seeing now is a new segment of that eight in 10 has been given a reason to get active.”

In Kentucky and elsewhere, advocates say they are seeing more men interested in abortion rights than ever before. Kansas was the first state to have an abortion-related constitutional amendment on its ballot this year, and Rachel Sweet, who ran the successful campaign against that proposal, says she was surprised by how many men volunteered with the effort. Now she’s seeing the same thing in Kentucky with volunteers like Horwitch, where she is running Protect Kentucky Access, the campaign against that state’s proposed amendment. Leaders for Michigan’s campaign to enshrine abortion rights in their state’s constitution say they’ve seen more male volunteers too. “Men are realizing that they also have a role to play in this fight that is bigger than just being on the sidelines and staying out of the way,” Sweet says.

Read More: Michigan Is Fighting One of the Most Significant Abortion Battles in the Country

To capitalize on this interest, campaigners have been experimenting with new messengers in abortion-related ads and with different ways of coaching men on how to speak about the issue. Sweet’s Kansas campaign used ads including a male physician, a male pastor, and a male narrator framing the amendment as a “government mandate.” She ran ads there on what she calls “dad channels,” including Fox News and the History Channel. The Kentucky campaign launched two new ads on Tuesday, similarly featuring a male pastor and a male narrator, and there her campaign is advertising on Fox News and ESPN.

Other campaigns, in places diverse as Arizona, Minnesota, and Texas, have also deployed male characters in abortion-related ads this year. Civis Analytics, a progressive data science company, began looking at how male messengers performed after the Dobbs decision. Josh Yazman, a political data scientist at Civis, found that while traditional abortion-related ads featuring a mom talking about having an abortion after her first child worked well with women, ads featuring men born after 1981—what he calls “bros”—were resonating with different voters. His team tested an ad featuring a younger man named “Conrad” with “flowing hair” talking about fearing for the women in his life after Dobbs. “The bro was really doing better with some of those groups like rural voters, men, Republicans, people who don’t typically respond well to pro-abortion messaging,” Yazman says.

Having men talk to each other about abortion rights is “critical” to their buy-in as “stakeholders” rather than just “allies,” says Oren Jacobson, founder of Men4Choice, a group that works to educate and mobilize men in support of abortion rights. “We have to recognize the reality in this country that for far too long, men haven’t been listening to women,” Jacobson says. “We believe that the most persuasive and effective communicators to help change men’s mind about this are other men.”

Finding the right messages for men

It’s not just the messenger that matters, but also the message.

One of the ideas that campaigns say resonates most strongly with men is the idea of maintaining freedom from government control. This was a central theme of the Kansas campaign, where the coalition fighting the amendment was called Kansans for Constitutional Freedom. It’s working in Kentucky too, say Sweet and Horwitch. NARAL’s research has also found this frame works for men because “it’s not so centered on the physicality of the body,” says Vasquez-Giroux. It allows men to think about the issue through a frame of independence, which they may already support. “There’s a group of folks who plainly say that they they don’t think that abortion would be right for them or their families but they believe that it should be legal, and that everyone should decide for themselves,” she says.

Another message that works is to highlight the positions of anti-abortion politicians and advocates, says Ryan Irvin, co-founder of Change Media Group, which has worked on ads for candidates that support abortion rights this year. “Pointing to how extreme some of the positions of some of the candidates we’re helping run against has been a really, really key factor,” he says. Jacobson notes that one of Men4Choice’s most effective efforts is its “Call Bulls**t” campaign, which encourages men to use “normal guy speak” to call out “the men in power who are using that power to control women’s bodies.”

A crowd of anti-abortion and abortion rights protesters are seen in the Indiana State Capitol building on July 25, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana.Jon Cherry—Getty Images

A third message that has been effective is appealing to men’s concern for and desire to help the women in their lives who could be affected by abortion bans. Bryan Bennett, a pollster at progressive data firm Navigator Research, says he still sees men about 10 points less affected by most abortion messages than women—except those that focus on forcing women to carry pregnancies to term under horrible circumstances. Navigator polling from late September, for example, found that 83% of Democratic women and 77% of Democratic men found it very or somewhat concerning that Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposed national abortion ban would require women to carry a pregnancy for nine months even if they found out the baby would not survive birth, while other messages had larger gender gaps. The Civis researchers tested messages related to Kentucky’s proposed constitutional amendment and found that strong statements about how the state’s abortion ban could harm women were more effective with men than less urgent messages, and their national polling found that young men were more likely to support abortion rights if they knew someone had an abortion. NARAL, too, has found that men are “powerfully motivated” by the idea of supporting women.

Jacobson at Men4Choice says that many men enter the conversation in this way because that’s how they’ve seen other men, especially politicians, talk about the issue in the past. His group, which runs several organizing fellowships each year for men 18-25 years old, tries to help move men beyond what can be seen as “paternalistic” framing by “meeting people where they are,” he says. “In the long term, it’s culture change work,” Jacobson says. “It’s training a new generation of men to engage differently on this issue.”

Some groups are specifically embracing men of color, who haven’t traditionally been a focus of abortion rights campaigns. NARAL recently released polling in Georgia by EMC research that found that 86% of Black men opposed the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and 79% opposed the state’s six-week abortion ban. Civil rights leaders and reproductive rights leaders discussed the need to motivate this group at a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris in September, and Planned Parenthood set up a food truck to talk with voters during homecoming weekend for Spelman College and Morehouse College, two historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Atlanta. At least half of Men4Choice’s fellowship cohort this summer identified as people of color, according to Jacobson, and the group is collaborating with Planned Parenthood to run ads targeting Black men in Atlanta during the final stretch of the midterms cycle.

Yazman says this is particularly important because the researchers at Civis found that while men of color do support reproductive rights, they are what he calls “pro-choice but persuadable” — susceptible to messaging from either side. In preliminary research in states with abortion ballot measures, Civis found that millennial and Gen Z men of color were swinging more than other groups when they saw targeted ads. “They’re willing to support restrictions if they hear a compelling argument about abortion restrictions,” he says. “They’re willing to fall back to more natural pro-choice views when they hear messaging that aligns with their pro-choice views.”

This is part of why abortion rights advocates around the country see the work to engage men as having urgent importance for the midterms—but also potentially big impacts in the future.

“The immediate goal is to beat this amendment,” Horwitch says of Kentucky’s Amendment 2. “We’re also laying groundwork for future political growth, and I think a broader understanding of men’s shared interest in protecting abortion rights, fighting for things like universal health care and just greater understanding of collective politics.”

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