A new way to talk about abortion? In Maine, using deep conversation to reach voters

It’s Saturday, and Sarah Mahoney is one of several Planned Parenthood volunteers knocking on doors in Windham, Maine, a politically moderate town not far from Portland.

No one answers at the first couple of houses. But as Mahoney heads up the street, she sees a woman out for a walk.

“Hey! We’re out canvassing,” she says. “Would you mind having a conversation with us?”

Mahoney wants to talk about abortion — not a typical topic for a conversation, especially with a stranger.

But the woman, Kerry Kelchner, agrees to talk.

If this were typical door-to-door canvassing, Mahoney might ask Kelchner about a political candidate, remind her to vote and then be on her way.

But Mahoney is deep canvassing — a technique that employs longer conversations to move opinions on hot-button issues.

Planned Parenthood in Maine has deployed the strategy for several years amid what it says are increasing threats to reproductive rights. This year alone, states have enacted more than 100 restrictions on abortion, including one in Texas that bans most abortions after six weeks. This month, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in a case about a Mississippi law that could lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion.

Planned Parenthood organizer Katie McClelland (L) gives a pep talk to volunteers outside the library in Windham, Maine, on Oct. 16. The volunteers then fan out to different neighborhoods to engage in “deep canvassing” The goal is to have four conversations with voters over the next two hours. (Patty Wight/Maine Public Radio)

Emphasizing the deeply personal over the political

Although state law in Maine protects abortion rights even if Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion opponents have gained traction in the state in recent years. So volunteers like Mahoney start conversations. And they can get quite personal.

Mahoney first assesses Kelchner’s baseline attitude on abortion access on a scale of 0 to 10. A 10 means the interviewee believes anyone should be able to get an abortion for any reason.

Kelchner says she’s a 7.

Next, Mahoney asks Kelchner a series of questions to better understand her values.

“Can you tell me a little bit about what shaped your views on abortion?” she asks. “Have you known anybody who’s had an abortion, a friend or a family member?”

“My mother,” says Kelchner. She explains her parents were young when she was born, and they weren’t ready for another baby.

Then Mahoney, who’s 60, shares that she also had an abortion. “I was in my early 20s,” she says. “I was a little conflicted about it, and I wanted to have a family. I knew I wanted to have a family, but I was in no way ready to do that.”

Mahoney points out that she and Kelchner have similar views on what an unplanned pregnancy can mean. Then she asks her opening question again, to see whether Kelchner’s feelings about abortion access have shifted on the 0-to-10 scale.

“Still around 7,” Kelchner says.

Mahoney probes further: “What would be the circumstances where you would say, ‘No — they shouldn’t have the right to have an abortion?’”

Kelchner pauses. “That’s a good question.”

They talk more. Ultimately, Kelchner can’t think of any circumstance in which she believes someone should be denied an abortion.

“There should be no judgment,” she concludes.

“So that would be a 10?” Mahoney asks.

“Yep,” says Kelchner.

In the five years that she’s been deep canvassing for Planned Parenthood, Mahoney says, she hasn’t had a single unpleasant conversation.

“What we’ve found doing this is that it is an effective way to change minds about abortion,” says Amy Cookson, director of external communications for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

Cookson says Planned Parenthood started deep canvassing in Maine in 2015, after Paul LePage, an anti-abortion Republican, won a second term as governor. Gay rights advocates in California had used deep canvassing on the same-sex marriage issue, and she wondered: “Can it work around abortion stigma?”

The technique has been used to garner support for gay marriage, transgender rights, police reform efforts, and for Biden in the 2020 election.

Planned Parenthood volunteer Sarah Mahoney talks to a voter about abortion access outside a home in Windham, Maine on Oct 16, 2021. (Patty Wight/Maine Public Radio)

An alternative to heated protests and attack ads

Joshua Kalla, a political scientist at Yale University, has conducted research that found the technique can change people’s deeply held beliefs. The crucial elements are that canvassers listen without judgment and share their own stories.

“So whether the person had an abortion and is talking about their abortion story,” says Kalla, “or whether the person is an ally and is talking about a friend or family member who had an abortion and is sharing that story, the effects seem to be quite similar.”

Kalla has also studied Planned Parenthood’s efforts in Maine and says the group has added something else that’s effective: moral reframing. Canvassers listen for the moral values a voter emphasizes and then incorporate those values into the story they share.

But deep canvassing is not exclusively a progressive tactic, Kalla says. Conservative groups can use it, too, and he thinks that would improve political discourse: “You know, it would be good for American society if the way we had political conversation was more grounded, and listening to the other side, and being nonjudgmental, and being curious.”

Back in Windham, Mahoney continues to walk through the neighborhood. She meets a man outside his apartment building who gives only his first name, Chris. He says he’s a 4 on the abortion access scale. He opposes abortion except in cases of sexual assault. Chris tells Mahoney he had a daughter when he was 15.

“Do you talk about, I’m curious, birth control and abortion?” Mahoney asks.

“I do with her a lot,” Chris says. She’s a teenager, he says, and he’s not sure what he’d do if she got pregnant accidentally.

“It’s her own life,” he says. “I don’t know if I would even try to change her mind. Because it’s her decision.”

Being okay with changing minds slowly, or not at all

As the conversation goes on, Chris seems as though he supports access to abortion. But at the end, he doesn’t budge on his rating.

Mahoney says that’s OK. Some people won’t change their minds right away.

“The worst way to think about this is that it’s some kind of Jedi mind trick,” she says, “and I’m going to let them talk about themselves and then — pow! — I’m going to change their mind.”

What Mahoney wants most from these conversations is for people to think more deeply about the nuances around abortion, and to identify common ground: “I just feel like we all need to be taking steps to hear one another and move towards each other, instead of just diving into this divisive, contrary, hostile, Red-and-Blue world.”

Because of the success Planned Parenthood in Maine has had with deep canvassing, it has trained volunteers in other states, including Texas and Kansas. Next year, Kansas voters will cast ballots on a referendum question that seeks to revoke abortion access as a fundamental right.

This story comes from NPR’s health reporting partnership with Maine Public Radio and KHN.

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