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More states are enacting restrictive abortion laws. Maine Planned Parenthood’s response is to go deep with voters

sarah deep canvas.jpg
Patty Wight
Maine Public
Planned Parenthood canvasser Sarah Mahoney talks with a voter about access to abortion.

This year, states have enacted more than 100 restrictions on access to abortion, the most since the landmark case of Roe vs. Wade. In Maine, the legislature considered six bills, and while none of them passed, pro-choice advocates say reproductive rights are under threat. As a response to that, Planned Parenthood in Maine is sending out volunteers to go door to door to garner support. And it's using a strategy called deep canvassing that's designed to move people's opinions, even on hot button issues.

Every Saturday, Planned Parenthood volunteers meet outside the Windham library. They've been going door to door all summer and fall in this southern Maine community which is evenly divided between Democratic, Republican and unenrolled voters.

"We are taking action in this key district. We are learning and growing, always learning something new from our conversations each time," says organizer Katie McClelland.

On this morning, McClelland tells the eight volunteers that their goal is to have four conversations with voters over the next two hours. Then she gives a pep talk. Knocking on strangers' doors can be intimidating, especially when you're trying to engage them on the subject of abortion.

"I want to acknowledge we may encounter tough voters today while you're at the door. It happens," McClelland tells the volunteers. She reminds them that they're trained and ready, then sends them out.

windam volunteers.jpg
Patty Wight
Maine Public
Organizers and volunteers meet back at the Windham library after they finish canvassing.

After a short drive, volunteer Sarah Mahoney arrives in her assigned neighborhood. She has a list of addresses of moderate voters. Compared to staunch opponents, they're more likely to shift views on abortion.

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

"Hey! We're out canvassing. What's your address? I'll see if you're on my list," Mahoney asks.

This woman, who we're only identifying by her first name, Kerry, is not on the list. But she's open to talking so Mahoney begins by asking a baseline question: on a scale of zero to 10, how does she rate her support for access to abortion? 10 means anyone should be able to get an abortion for any reason. Kerry says she's a 7. If this were a typical door to door canvas effort, Mahoney might talk about a political candidate, remind Kerry to vote, and then be on her way. But this is deep canvassing. Mahoney is here to talk about a single issue. She asks Kerry a series of questions to better understand her values. Why does a 7 feel right for her? What's shaped her views on abortion? She doesn't shy away from the personal question, either.

"Have you known anybody personally who's had an abortion, a friend or a family member?" Mahoney asks.

"My mother," Kerry says.

Kerry shares that her parents were young when they had her and weren't ready for another baby. Then Mahoney, who's 60, shares her personal story.

"I know for myself, I had an abortion when I was in my early 20s. I was a little conflicted about it," Mahoney says. "I wanted to have a family, but I was in no way ready to do that."

Mahoney points out to Kerry that they share similar values about responsibility. Because both she and Kerry's mom knew what they were up for when they faced unplanned pregnancies and made the choice that was right for them. They talk for several more minutes, then Mahoney asks her opening question again to see if Kerry has shifted her position on the zero to 10 scale for abortion access.

"Still around 7," Kerry says.

"And just so I’m clear, what would be the circumstances where you would say, no – they shouldn’t have the right to have an abortion?" Mahoney asks.

Kerry pauses to consider. "That’s a good question."

She takes another long pause, and they talk some more. Ultimately, she says she can't think of a circumstance where someone should be denied an abortion.

"There should be no judgment," Kerry says.

She moves her position to a 10. After a 20 minute conversation, this voter just moved on abortion rights.

"What we've found doing this is that it is an effective way to change minds about abortion," says Amy Cookson, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood in Maine. She says they started deep canvassing in 2015. Republican Governor Paul LePage had just been re-elected, and Cookson says Planned Parenthood realized they needed to talk to voters differently. The strategy had been used in California to garner support for same sex marriage. And subsequent research by Josh Kalla , an assistant professor of political science at Yale University, has found evidence that deep canvassing can change people's deeply held beliefs. The critical elements, Kalla says, are listening without judgment and sharing stories, especially from the canvasser.

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Patty Wight
Maine Public
Volunteer Sarah Mahoney canvassing in Windham for Planned Parenthood.

"So whether the person had an abortion is talking about their abortion story, 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 says.

Kalla has studied Planned Parenthood's efforts in Maine, and says they've added another element that's effective: moral reframing. Canvassers listen carefully for the moral values a voter emphasizes, and then incorporate that value into the story they share. At the end of these conversations, voters are asked to take action, such as urging members of Congress to support Medicaid funding for abortions. Kalla's research finds that people are more willing to take political action. And they're more likely to support reproductive rights, even though that support wanes over time.

"We're in a world right now with booster shots. Maybe you need a booster shot with a canvassing conversation, would be one idea," Kalla says. "Or a second idea is maybe they're just different things that we could have done in that initial conversation to make it stronger."

Back in Windham, canvasser Sarah Mahoney strikes up a conversation with a man named Chris. He opposes abortion except in cases of sexual assault. He tells Mahoney he had his first daughter when he was 15.

"Do you talk about, I'm curious, birth control and abortion?" Mahoney asks.

"I do with her a lot. Because I don’t want her to have to make a decision like that. Because it’s going to be hard for her, and I don’t know what I would do, if I would let her or try to change her mind," Chris says. "But then again, it’s her own life, I don’t know if I would even try to change her mind. Because it’s her decision."

As they talk more, Chris seems to support choice. But at the end of their conversation, he doesn't budge on the rating scale. Mahoney says that's okay. Not everyone is going to change their mind right away.

"The worst way to think about this is that like, it's some kind of Jedi mind trick. And I'm going to let them talk about themselves, and then - pow! We'll change their mind," Mahoney says.

She just hopes people think more deeply about the nuances around abortion. And she says that sharing her story, which she mostly kept a secret before doing this work, has helped her feel less stigmatized.

"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," Mahoney says.

In the five years she's been doing this kind of advocacy, Mahoney says she hasn't had a single unpleasant conversation. She hopes there will be more discussion on the issue of abortion in the months ahead. And there likely will be. Planned Parenthood in Maine has trained affiliates in other states on the process of deep canvassing.