Why Civic Engagement for Abortion Advocacy Matters

The voices of the majority who side with robust reproductive rights must be reflected in legislation.

Abortion rights activists march to the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2023, in Washington, D.C., to mark the one-year anniversary of the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which overturned Roe v. Wade. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Last year, Americans lost their federal right to abortion, despite polls that suggest favorable public opinion for abortion access is as high as 85 percent. In a country where legislation is supposed to reflect the demands of its people, this dissonance with public opinion is outrageous.

After all, democracy hinges on effective civic engagement: mechanisms that enable the public to express their concerns, and individual and collective actions designed to address these issues. While polls show the majority of the American public consistently supports abortion rights, 24 states have passed abortion bans so far. Given this landscape and the failure of our country to adopt laws that are widely supported, we must look outside the U.S. for models of strong civic engagement in order to restore abortion rights here at home.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Roe v. Wade and overturn the federal constitutional right to abortion, Republicans moved quickly to pass sweeping abortion bans. Protests broke out across the country—but paled in comparison to other public outcries, such as the 2017 Women’s March. That day, more than 470,000 people in Washington, D.C., and 5 million people worldwide marched in opposition to the inauguration of Donald Trump—the single largest day of protest in U.S. history.

After four years of no recourse during the Trump administration, people are tired and discouraged. But we still have a voice.

We can use this voice in public and private forums, at events, with our family and friends, and in the voting booth. Public discourse on abortion typically involves a wide-ranging cast of characters: philosophers, scientists, medical providers, religious leaders, people who experienced the procedure and more. The vast array of opinions in these discussions creates a complex, collective social opinion that requires different forms of engagement when it comes to expanding spaces for social participation and collective advocacy. This complexity requires multiple action pathways (legal, political, religious and societal) that citizens can use to achieve positive reproductive health outcomes. We need to take advantage of all of them.

After four years of no recourse during the Trump administration, people are tired and discouraged. But we still have a voice.

Many of us think of civic engagement on abortion as getting to the polls and voting for candidates who support reproductive rights. Civic engagement is much more than that. It also uses citizens’ voices to spread accurate health information across the general public and to apply pressure on decisionmakers for a specific cause. 

For nearly 60 years, PAI has been working to advance universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights through advocacy, partnerships and funding. Part of this work involves supporting champions that participate and lead civil society organizations to galvanize collective advocacy approaches. 

As a result, PAI’s partners have learned to strategically organize the chaos of civic discourse by ensuring access to safe abortions, but also keeping healthy civic spaces alive to protect other social and human rights issues.

In Malawi and Zambia, for example, three of PAI’s partners have been steadfastly implementing multipronged strategies for abortion advocacy through increased civic engagement. The U.S. should be taking notes.

Many of us think of civic engagement on abortion as getting to the polls and voting for candidates who support reproductive rights. Civic engagement is much more than that.

Banja La Mtsogolo (BLM) is effectively creating and broadening civic space for religious leaders, mobilizing interfaith discussions to reduce opposition in the media and building support for lifesaving health services such as abortion in Malawi. In 2022, BLM created a collaborative community radio discussion—the Young Women’s Consortium, Coalition for Prevention of Unsafe Abortion and Religious Network for Choice—to disseminate accurate information about abortion access, alongside stories of women who had experienced medical complications from unsafe abortions. The radio segment reached more than 140,000 listeners and positively influenced Malawian public opinion on abortion by using trusted faith leaders to disseminate accurate information.

In Zambia, the Centre for Reproductive Health and Education (CRHE) has served as a trusted civil society partner for the government since 2006. It has been convening various peer organizations working in reproductive health to define and clarify national abortion policy. Currently leading the Ministry of Health’s Reproductive Health Task Force, CRHE serves as an interface between Zambia’s legislative and judicial branches to interpret the country’s Comprehensive Abortion Care guidelines fairly and accurately. Of note, these guidelines not only currently require three physician approvals, but also a poorly defined hospital requirement, for an abortion to proceed. CRHE is advancing civic engagement in abortion discourse by elevating the collective civil society voices of Zambia’s Safe Abortion Advisory Group members to the Ministries of Health and Justice, ensuring that decision-makers agree on a sustainable solution that is representative of public opinion.

Meanwhile, Copper Rose Zambia (CRZ) is addressing clinical challenges to abortion access by advocating for the inclusion of values clarification and attitudes transformation (VCAT) training in pre- and in-service clinical training, and using its role as a member of the country’s Family Planning and Safe Abortion Advocacy Technical Working Groups. VCAT is the process of identifying the influential values and beliefs that guide individuals’ interests and decisions. This is important because values and beliefs can predict behavior or performance, including among health workers. There is such sufficient evidence of this that the World Health Organization recommends VCAT exercises for medical providers as integral training for addressing stigma so that they can separate their personal beliefs from the needs of clients. This is a critical step toward ensuring providers can adequately fulfill their medical obligation to serve the client’s best interests by performing abortions.

Civic engagement is an invaluable tool to unlock access to safe abortion care. But, globally, protecting civic spaces is an uphill battle. Just like in the U.S., PAI’s partners have shared that critical voices have left the civic space in recent years due to unstable funding and a disproportional wave of U.S.-funded opposition triggered by the Dobbs decision.

“Upholding strong civic spaces is vital for fostering genuine democracy and ensuring reproductive justice,” said Natasha Salifyanji Koama, co-founder of CRZ. “Every silenced voice due to lack of support hinders social progress and undermines gender equality.”

Our greatest protection against these challenges is maintaining strong civic spaces and upholding a strong democracy—so that the voices of the majority who side with robust reproductive rights are loud enough to be reflected in legislation. Just as PAI’s partners are doing everyday around the world, advocates in the U.S. should prioritize maintaining spaces for public opinion and organizing collective action as a key abortion justice strategy if they want to foster the true democracy that America claims to be.

PAI champions policies that put women, youth and at-risk communities in charge of their sexual and reproductive health and rights. We work with policymakers in Washington, D.C., and our network of funded partners across nearly 40 countries to remove roadblocks to access sexual and reproductive health services and support. For nearly 60 years, PAI has helped communities succeed by upholding their basic rights. To learn more, visit www.pai.org and follow PAI on FacebookTwitterInstagram and LinkedIn.

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U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Eve Brecker is the associate director of civic engagement at PAI.