How Do You Change Someone’s Mind About Abortion? Tell Them You Had One.

Gay marriage, Planned Parenthood, and a eureka moment in the new science of persuasion.

Rashida Woods canvassing for same-sex marriage in 2011.

Photograph courtesy Los Angeles LGBT Center

EDITOR'S NOTE: May 20, 2015: On Oct. 6, 2014, Bloomberg Politics published the below article about a canvassing tactic developed by the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Leadership Lab in the wake of the passage of Proposition 8 in 2008, in which volunteers were invited to discuss their own sexual identity to voters at the doorstep.  Many of the claims in the article about the effectiveness of the tactic in changing opinions on gay marriage were based on the experimental research performed by UCLA graduate student Michael LaCour, whose partnership with the Leadership Lab was described in the article.  Two months after Bloomberg Politics first reported on LaCour’s research, his findings were published in the journal Science in an article co-authored with Columbia University political scientist Don Green.  

In May 2015, after attempting and failing to replicate the design of the surveys that LaCour used to measure opinion change among those whom the LGBT Center’s volunteers has canvassed, graduate students David Broockman (of Stanford) and Joshua Kalla (of UC-Berkeley) concluded that the data used by LaCour and Green suffered from “irregularities.” Subsequently, a variety of LaCour’s collaborators and colleagues have raised doubts about whether he ever collected any of the data supposedly analyzed to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Leadership Lab’s tactics. On May 19, persuaded that the data LaCour had presented to him had been likely faked, Green requested that Science retract the article they had written on the subject. “Michael LaCour’s failure to produce the raw data,” Green wrote to the journal's editors, “undermines the credibility of the findings.” Bloomberg Politics contacted LaCour, but he had not completed his response. 

To those who toil on the field side of campaigns, LaCour and Green’s now-discredited finding about the value of meaningful face-to-face encounter had offered validation. The hard work of knocking on unfamiliar doors actually could change minds.  To everyone else, the LaCour/Green paper offered the shape of an answer to the vexing public-opinion question of our time: how did so many Americans change their views on gay marriage so quickly?

The Leadership Lab was conducting these canvasses well before its executive director, Dave Fleischer, met Green or was introduced to LaCour — 11,000 conversations by volunteers with voters in the Los Angeles area over four years.  Many of these were captured on video and are themselves inspiring, about the power of a candid conversation with a stranger to change minds. In some cases they offer support for the animating thesis of Fleischer’s efforts to transform campaigns in the wake of Proposition 8’s failure: that interactions with a gay or lesbian person can play an important role in softening opposition to gay rights. But those chats, are anecdotes about this grand social change we have witnessed but yet to fully understand. They are not evidence. 

Among Richard Nixon’s underappreciated lifelong grievances was a deep contempt for the practice of canvassing. “There's a myth that's grown up about my first campaign and even the campaign for the Senate. They point out that I worked hard, which I did, and that we used to go door-to-door and ask people to vote for us. Never,” Nixon later reflected. “I could do it in small groups or even large groups, but going individually in and invading the privacy of a home and saying, ‘Will you vote for me, and here's a piece of literature.’ If they came to my place, I'd kick them out. I would understand it if they did that to me.”

On a recent Saturday morning, several dozen activists with no such qualms gathered in the offices of an AIDS support organization in Whittier, the same town where Nixon launched that first congressional campaign in 1946. The attendees represent a Southern California that Nixon never knew, and could have conjured only as a caution to his Silent Majority about how difficult it is to keep things as they are. Many were young women who had arrived in groups from college campuses, nearly all recruited by the Los Angeles LGBT Center or the county’s Planned Parenthood chapter to fan out to talk to voters about abortion. “We want to change people’s minds in the long term, not just through election day,” said Laura Gardiner, the Center’s national mentoring coordinator, told the activists.

Among activists, there’s a new optimism about changing minds, owing to the rapid yet seemingly durable shift of public opinion on gay marriage. The numbers are well known but still staggering. When Gallup first asked about legal recognition for same-sex unions, in 1996, only 27 percent of Americans said they were supportive; this May, it was 55 percent.

The stories we tell about how this happened usually minimize politicians and campaigns and prefer the logic of the natural cycle: People realize they know personally gays and lesbians, grow comfortable around them, accept their political demands in human terms, creating an environment where more people feel comfortable coming out.

Those leading the session in Whittier believed they had developed an inexpensive method to both trigger and accelerate that organic process, so that they would not have to passively entrust generational evolution to move opinions further in their direction. Now they were working to apply that same technique to win over opponents of abortion, which liberal activists see as the sexual revolution’s unfinished business and remains the most stubbornly polarizing issue in America.

Like most organizations that use volunteers for canvassing, Planned Parenthood usually deploys them to solicit contributions from people who share their goals, or to register and mobilize voters who are already in their camp. Training for such tasks usually consists of handing activists a script and delivering a pep talk. Organizers typically believe everyone is best served getting volunteers out to doorsteps as swiftly as possible—in the hopes of maximizing the time they spend raising money or generating votes while energy and enthusiasm remain high. Organizers of the Planned Parenthood canvass, however, had scheduled ninety minutes to prepare volunteers for three hours of door-knocking. The extra time was necessary because of the surprising intimacy of the conversation they were about to have, centered around an issue that’s difficult to discuss even with people they already knew well. “When we talk about abortion, it’s the voter’s instinct to be in this hypothetical, opinion-based place,” said Ella Barrett. She suggested that canvassers would be successful only if they were able to make a profound connection at the individual level. “How do we do this?” Barrett asked. “How do we dig for these real experiences?”

Phone-bank canvassers in Los Angeles on Oct. 4, 2014. Planned Parenthood usually deploys volunteers to solicit contributions from people who share their goals, or to register and mobilize voters who are already in their camp. But those tactics are changing.
Phone-bank canvassers in Los Angeles on Oct. 4, 2014. Planned Parenthood usually deploys volunteers to solicit contributions from people who share their goals, or to register and mobilize voters who are already in their camp. But those tactics are changing.
Photographer: John Francis Peters/Bloomberg

 A script clasped to a clipboard offered something of a guide. Canvassers were to start by asking voters to assess their support for gay marriage on a scale of one to 10. For those who characterized themselves as anything less than a ten, it was the canvasser’s task to probe for the nature of the resistance or ambivalence. Organizer Virginia Millacci instructed them to shepherd the conversation into new territory by both listening and sharing. “Build rapport with the voter by being yourself,” Millacci advised. “When we’re vulnerable with the voter, it really pays off.”

She said that with a sense of moral conviction, but it also amounted to a hypothesis. All of the names on the walk sheets were part of a sample of 14,128 southern Californians who had been selected for an experiment. By the time the day was over, the researchers who had designed the study believed, as many 500 people would have their views on abortion irreparably changed by having a woman arrive unannounced on their doorstep and reveal, with little wind-up or context, that she had had an abortion.

The original architect of this new approach, which occurred almost by accident, is a lifelong political activist named Dave Fleischer.

Fleischer moved to California in 2009 in the hopes of helping the gay-rights movement rebuild after the previous November’s passage of Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in the state. Fleischer, who acknowledged he was gay only after leaving the southern Ohio town where he had grown up, afterward spending roughly half his career working for gay groups and the remainder for other campaigns and causes on the left. “I really enjoy solving the problem of how communities that are normally shut out can overcome the barriers of entry to be able to participate in public life,” he says.

David Fleischer.
David Fleischer.
Photographer: John Francis Peters/Bloomberg

Fleischer had been back in Ohio for much of 2008, working for Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation to mobilize minority voters for the fall elections, and had only glancingly followed events in California. Many in the gay political world were shocked not only by the outcome of the Proposition 8 vote, but also by the strength of their opponents: a coalition funded in large part by Mormon and Catholic interests that found surprising support among minority populations. The initiative had prevailed on what gay activists had considered friendly turf, winning a majority in Los Angeles County even as Barack Obama had beaten John McCain there by 40 points. Fleischer called Darrel Cummings, a former colleague who had become chief of staff of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which had grown into one of the nation’s largest gay and lesbian institutions thanks to its primary role as a social-service provider to AIDS patients and queer youth.

Even from a distance, it was clear to Fleischer that the gay community was responding to electoral disappointment with its spleen rather than its brain or hands. “How many times are you guys going to march on a Mormon temple?” Fleischer asked.

“People really need help,” Cummings replied. “People are so upset and people don’t know what to do.”

Eventually, Fleischer knew, they would have to organize their way back to the California ballot with an initiative to reinstate same-sex marriages. “People were really scared and dispirited and didn’t know what to do as a practical matter, other than vent their outrage. And there’s only so far that’s going to take you,” he recalls. Fleischer decided he would move to California and, under the auspices of the Center’s new Leadership Lab, develop a training program to develop gay political talent. While exhuming the dismal history of Proposition 8 to understand his side’s failures, Fleischer arrived at a tactical insight that in retrospect was a revelation. “Let’s go talk to the people who voted against us and ask why,” he recalls thinking. “In a way I feel like a schmuck that it took me over 40 years of canvassing before it occurred to me to do that.”

Fleischer and his team at Vote For Equality, as the Center’s campaign was known, identified precincts in the Los Angeles suburbs where Prop 8 had done particularly well and sent volunteers to knock on the doors of regular voters there. The first script Fleischer drafted, in January 2009, pivoted around one question, and a follow-up: "How do you feel about marriage for gay and lesbian couples?" Then: "Can I ask you why you feel that way?"At that point, a stage direction advised canvassers: “Optional: Insert Brief Personal Statement.” Many of the volunteers were gay or lesbian, and Fleischer realized that meant inviting them to effectively out themselves to someone they had just met, and who was being approached only because the two were likely to have clashing notions of civil rights.

“From the point of view of the voter, we are having a very low-stakes conversation. We are talking with them privately, one on one, out of earshot of anyone else. And this person is listening and is not judging them. And is allowing them, and, in fact, encouraging them, to talk about things that really matter to them. Well, how often does that happen in life? Almost never,” Fleischer says. “In all my years of canvassing I had never done this. It’s possible that this would have been an idea that sounded really good and never worked. Wow, all these people voted against us—do they want to talk to a gay person coming to their door?”

In the spring of 2013, Fleischer traveled from Los Angeles to New York for a Passover seder with friends with whom he had celebrated the holiday for the last 25 years, but he made time for an audience with Don Green.

There may be no one in America who has picked through the organizer’s toolbox with as much rigor as Green, a Columbia University political scientist who has pioneered in his discipline’s use of randomized-control trials. If Green’s experiments had produced an overarching theme, it was that seemingly minor interactions, including doorstep visits, could engage non-voters to change their behavior. This was particularly inspiring to activists of Fleischer’s generation, whose idealistic view of organizing had been undermined by the commercialization of canvassing. (This was particularly true in California, where the state’s ballot-initiative process—and the burden it placed on well-funded, non-party organizations to gather petition signatures—gave birth to a lucrative canvasser-for-hire sector.)

Green’s experimental method had restored a sense of humanism to street-level politics, by repeatedly quantifying the superiority of volunteers to paid workers when trying to register or mobilize voters. Yet Green’s research (and that of hundreds of colleagues, students, and their collaborators) had done little to measure an activist’s ability to change minds through one-on-one interactions. “There’s almost this assumption that volunteers won’t do it,” Fleischer says. “And when you do have volunteers do it, you don’t expect much. You’ll basically be happy if you have a good little robot at the door having a very brief interaction.”

Over lunch near Columbia’s campus, Fleischer told Green about how Vote for Equality volunteers were being deployed, and how far their new techniques were from the old, robotic model. Afterwards, the two men headed to Green’s office at Columbia, where Fleischer removed a laptop and began showing what these encounters actually looked like. The Leadership Lab had decided from the beginning to document as many of the doorstep visits as possible, pairing each canvasser with a videographer. Nearly all of the videos Fleischer had to show Green had been edited significantly for concision; many of the original conversations had gone on for well over 20 minutes, far longer than the brief exchanges that Green had engineered when trying to get citizens to register by reminding them to cast a ballot. 

The rhythm of the conversations had changed dozens of time over the four years, as Fleischer repeatedly tweaked the script in the hopes of triggering greater candor. He had canvassers begin by asking a voter to assess their views of gay marriage on a 10-point scale, a tool for quickly limning a voter’s ambivalence. Fleischer also equipped canvassers with tablets so they could show the “Princess” ad run on behalf of Prop 8 and credited afterwards with successfully raising voters’ concerns about whether children would be taught in schools that homosexuality was acceptable. Fleischer encouraged his volunteers to open up about their own sexual identity and experiences as a way of building trust and comfort. “We’re listening to what the voter says, and then reacting to it,” says Fleischer. What that meant for LGBT people was to tell a story where they would come out and talk about being gay.”

On one canvass in 2009, Jackson Darling, the Vote for Equality project manager, visited a man in Whittier who claimed that he had skipped over Prop 8 when it was on the ballot. “Basically I kind of didn’t want to get involved,” the man said. “I didn’t want to make the wrong choice.” Darling expressed sympathy, and let him continue. The man said that he had a “cousin who’s a lesbian who I love very much, and she’s been with another woman for, like 20 years.” He began tearing up a little as he discussed his cousin, who he said was named Jill. “I get emotional,” he apologized.

 “Yeah, I do, too.  It seems like a really hard decision,” Darling said. “For a lot of folks, it’s about protecting this sort of idea of man/woman. But for us, it’s about protecting each other.”

Jackson Darling, project manager for Vote for Equality, is transgender. On one canvass, he met a man who had skipped over Proposition 8 when it was on the ballot, but got teary-eyed when discussing
Jackson Darling, project manager for Vote for Equality, is transgender. On one canvass, he met a man who had skipped over Proposition 8 when it was on the ballot, but got teary-eyed when discussing "a cousin who's a lesbian who I love very much."
Photographer: John Francis Peters/Bloomberg

Darling revealed the nature of that self-interest. “For me, I’m transgender; I was born a woman, I identify as a man,” he said. “I have a female partner right now, so we’re not legally able to get married.  We’re still new in our relationship—it’s only been about a year and a half but both of us have grown up with this idea of a commitment, and wanting to be with someone and share life together. We do everything we can to make sure we have that right when we’re ready.”

The voter’s tears were gone, but he stammered as he tried to make sense of his emotions. “Yeah, in bringing that stuff up, I realize that about my cousins,” the voter said. “As much as I love them, I don’t take it in internally as much. It wasn’t something that was super-personal to me.” Darling asked him how he would vote if same-sex marriage were on the ballot again. “I would vote for gays to be able to legally get married,” he said. “I think if two people want each other, they love each other, and I respect that.”

By that point, Vote for Equality canvassers had conducted more than 11,000 conversations, and Fleischer began to realize that they were not only eliciting opinions but changing them. When he reviewed voters’ self-reported scores on his 10-point scale, both over the course of the doorstep discussion and, in some cases, subsequent phone calls, he saw a lot of movement.  Just talking to a gay person was softening opponents’ resistance to same-sex marriage.

Fleischer’s hunch was that the success of those interactions had the potential to upend the architecture of American public opinion in other areas, but Green warned him that his current methodology was “not going to be convincing to a determined skeptic." And Green, to some degree, was certainly was a skeptic himself.

Like many political scientists, his previous research had illuminated the extent to which individual attitudes and partisan loyalties were remarkably stable over time, and as a result resistant to persuasion. (This helps to explain why many academics are so cynical about media coverage that suggests political tactics — a speech, an ad, an endorsement — can have a dramatic impact on election outcomes.) When Green, along with his former Yale University colleague Alan Gerber, were invited by Texas Governor Rick Perry to randomize his 2006 reelection campaign’s television buys, they found that ads did succeed in moving Perry’s poll numbers. But voters began reverting to their previous opinions days after the ads stopped; after a week, it was as though they had never appeared.

Undoing deeply held views about entire demographic groups looked to be even more challenging. As he worked with Perry’s campaign, Green was simultaneously guiding a graduate student, Betsy Levy Paluck, through a year-long experiment in Rwanda. She had randomly assigned some of the country’s residents to hear a radio soap opera about ethnic reconciliation, while others were placed in a control group that heard one revolving around health topics. Even though those who heard the reconciliation show experienced some change in their behavior around those from other groups, their personal beliefs didn’t budge. “I was of the opinion that longstanding attitudes are very slow to change,” says Green, “and that even if you do change them they’ll snap back to the old opinion not long after the contact ends.”

Fleischer’s videos were tantalizing to Green because of the vast body of social-science research supporting the idea that personal familiarity can be effective at changing views rooted in racial or ethnic prejudice. What psychologist Gordon Allport hypothesized in the 1950s as “contact theory” now tints many of the personal conversion narratives on gay marriage: Barack Obama points to his children’s friends raised by same-sex couples; Senator Rob Portman to his own gay son.

Yet there is only weak evidence to support extrapolating from anecdote to the broader societal shift on the issue. Much of what we have to explain how support for legal recognition of same-sex marriage has doubled over two decades comes from correlations in polls. Basically it is two numbers moving in upward tandem: The number of Americans who say they know a gay friend, family member, or co-worker, and the share who pronounce themselves in favor of legal recognition for gay couples. Yet just because people who say yes to one poll question are most likely to say yes to the other doesn’t account for a causal link between the two.  Are the Obamas more likely to interact with lesbian couples because they were already predisposed to view their relationships as legitimate? Was Will Portman inclined to come out as gay because he expected his father would be sympathetic?

In order to isolate the impact of Fleischer’s method, Green agreed to help imposed experimental controls on subsequent canvasses. Green introduced Fleischer to Michael LaCour, a UCLA graduate student who had taken an experiments workshop with Green. (Disclosure: I am also attached to the UCLA political-science department this year, as a a resident scholar.) Raised in New Orleans and connected to the Landrieu family through marriage, LaCour had been exposed to electoral politics from a young age but had always resisted canvassing. “I knew that was better left to other people to do,” he reflects. “Appealing to people’s reason and logic is tough at the door. If you’re good at it, you can get the best of people. But if you’re not, it’s hard out there.”

As an undergraduate at the University of Texas-Austin, LaCour had tried to test contact theory online, designing an experiment in which Facebook users who chose to post an “I’m Coming Out” badge on National Coming Out Day would have it randomly assigned to friends’ timelines. Facebook, however, refused to cooperate with the experiment, because it pushed a political agenda. As they began collaborating, Green advised LaCour that it was unlikely that canvassers had the impact Fleischer believed they did. “A deep pessimism suffuses the whole literature on the topic,” Green counseled. Yet clearly something was making Americans more comfortable with gay rights, and rapidly so; on the same day that LaCour and Fleischer spoke, the Supreme Court was hearing arguments in two cases relating to same-sex marriage.

LaCour identified 34,000 households with regular voters who lived in Los Angeles precincts where Proposition 8 had fared poorly but had not previously been contacted by Vote for Equality. From among them, LaCour began recruiting them for his study using what is known as a "snowball sample"; participants were offered $10 to join and $2 to help recruit others, including members of the same household. The result was 9,507 respondents who lived close together, so canvassers would have a lot of targets in walkable, dense neighborhoods. They were given an online survey with 50 questions covering a variety of political subjects, including abortion, taxes, and global warming. When it came to the two questions relating to homosexuality — one on same-sex marriage and another on attitudes toward “gay men and lesbians” — the group’s views on the whole were far less liberal than California’s. On a 100-point feeling thermometer, gays and lesbians scored an average rating just beyond the midway point; like most Americans, the only group whom they held in lower esteem was Muslims. In political terms, LaCour determined, his sample looked like Nebraska.

LaCour then sent Vote for Equality volunteers to visit about 1,000 of them, randomly assigning some households to receive a version of Fleischer’s script and others a placebo treatment, in which the canvasser would promote recycling. A third group would be treated as a control, and receive no contact. After the canvassing session, LaCour had the volunteers complete a form with personal information so he could assess any disparate impact they had. One of the questions: are you gay or straight?

Over the next month, LaCour reinterviewed chunks of his sample in four different waves. Days after the canvass, it was clear the visits had their desired effect on attitudes towards homosexuality. The average thermometer rating jumped by double digits among those visited by a gay or lesbian canvasser — nearly twice the impact of a straight one. Views on homosexuality were unchanged among those who either heard the recycling pitch or had no contact at all. But 10 days later, in LaCour’s second wave of surveys, the divergence became pronounced: Voters who had had a gay-marriage conversation with a straight canvasser saw their attitudes revert to the norm, while those who had done so with a gay one kept the warmer feelings.

One month after the initial canvass, the Supreme Court issued its opinions in the two marriage cases, each one expanding recognition of gay relationships. When LaCour conducted his first wave of surveys following the decisions, it was clear how influential they had been: All groups of respondents experienced a spike in their acceptance of both homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The next round of surveys two weeks later, however, demonstrated the now-familiar pattern. Every group saw their views slide back to pre-Court levels — all except one. Those who had had a conversation about same-sex marriage six weeks earlier with a gay or lesbian canvasser maintained their support near the level they had reached after the initial visit.

It was contact theory in practice, with a blunt encounter in which the most personal possible details were shared. “You may have a co-worker who’s gay, but are they directly discussing the issue at hand?” asks LaCour. “It’s fairly uncomfortable and truly weird to have a complete stranger come out at the door.” That experience appeared to jolt people into an instant reconsideration of attitudes they probably would have characterized, just before the doorbell rang, as deeply held. “What happens is, voters have an opinion, and the opinion is often, I think, an artifact. It was acquired a long time ago, and it’s not examined,” Fleischer speculates. “It’s not like every day someone’s waking up and asking ‘Am I still anti-abortion? Am I still same-sex marriage?’ They’ve had their opinion, they’ve had it a long time, it’s vestigial. Often it is divorced from their real-life experience. “

And those weird encounters could have powerful reverberations. LaCour was also surveying people who shared an address with a voter who had had contact with a Vote for Equality volunteer but had not done so themselves. While both straight and gay canvassers had an immediate impact on the opinions with everyone with whom they discussed gay marriage, something remarkable happened among those visited by gay canvassers: their housemates views changed, too, and durably so. The conversations that were taking place among housemates after the canvassers left seemed to be almost as powerfully mind-changing as the originals. It was the kind of effect scientists are trained to doubt.

“Unless this is replicated,” Green told LaCour, “no one will ever believe it.”

For those looking to change voters’ minds on contentious social issues, the findings from LaCour and Green’s research offer a tantalizing promise.

LaCour presented the results at two academic conferences this year. By the time he went to the American Political Science Conference this August, he was able to report that the effects of being visited by a gay canvasser could still be measured a full year later. Green is already working on an experiment in Texas where Latino canvassers out themselves as Democrats, and hopes to receive funding for one where volunteers disclose they are victims of gun violence. (He acknowledges such a design could easily be flipped to advance an opposing agenda, by having canvassers reveal they are gun owners.) “The question for those who want to bring this to practice is how much can you water it down and still have some of the impact?” Green says. “If you have something less than a 22-minute conversation, can you still change someone’s mind?”

For the LGBT Center, that question was rendered unexpectedly moot by the Supreme Court last summer. The justices’ decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry had effectively overturned Proposition 8, again legalizing marriage in California, and in United States v. Windsor appeared to signal the dénouement in the national debate over the issue. Vote for Equality turned its attention to other policy matters. It began training volunteers to speak to unfriendly strangers about transgender rights, with the same encouragement to discuss their own personal experiences. The subject posed challenges to the existing experimental design that LaCour had developed with Green. (For example: Would voters be able to deduce, based on appearance, that volunteers were transgendered even if they didn’t discuss it? As a result, would a moment of self-identification deliver the same jolt to a conversation as outing oneself as gay?) But LaCour would not be forced to dwell long on these questions.

Fleischer had his eye on another social issue on which opinions seem irreconcilably stubborn. On the left, it has become a source of frustration that the swift acceptance of gay rights has not been accompanied by a broader liberalization of sexual attitudes, particularly around reproductive issues. “That’s where the anti-abortion side has succeeded,” says Fleischer. “They’ve made people feel that to speak up and say something positive about abortion is something where you risk disapproval, then you’d be suggested to a certain amount of stigma. This is even truer around abortion than it is same-sex marriage.”

Fleischer approached Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, whose CEO had served on the board of the anti-Prop 8 campaign, to let the LGBT Center manage its canvassing program. After fighting a series of statewide ballot initiatives over parental notification, Planned Parenthood’s leadership concluded that its “traditional messaging strategies didn’t work,” according to Sue Dunlap, the CEO of the Los Angeles chapter. Instead, many in the pro-choice movement concluded, they needed to find fluency in the language of values understood by those who might be persuadable on the issue. “People are complicated and their emotions are often in conflict,” says Dunlap. “We’re making space for people to have complicated, complex feelings and still move forward.”

Abortion is typically considered a moral concern, about the bounds of life, or a legal one, about the nature of rights and liberties. Fleischer hypothesized it could be understood instead as a matter of personal identity, and that resistance to abortion really is stigma towards the women who have—or could have—them. “My hunch is,” he says, “talking about real lived experience is extraordinarily helpful in developing empathy and support.”

If so, perhaps American society had just never been exposed to the sustained organic contact that Allport argued 60 years ago could begin to dismantle a deeply held prejudice. After all, whites with retrograde views on race find themselves working on the same factory floor as blacks; straight people learn a beloved cousin is a lesbian. But how often does anyone, particularly among those who consider themselves pro-life, learn that a friend or relative or co-worker has had an abortion?

Planned Parenthood canvassers receive training in Los Angeles on Oct. 4, 2014.
Planned Parenthood canvassers receive training in Los Angeles on Oct. 4, 2014.
Photographer: John Francis Peters/Bloomberg

LaCour monitored the training session in Whittier from the back of the room with a coffee cup in his hand, a quiet if occasionally fidgety presence in a flannel shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. He had a sheath of forms in his hand that he would distribute to the volunteers that afternoon, asking about their personal abortion history. (Each canvasser was assigned a unique identification number, so the disparate impact of those who had had abortions and those who hadn’t could be measured anonymously.)  At that point, the volunteers would have just spent three hours in the field, through encounters they were warned could be emotionally intense, and alternately inspiring and disillusioning. They would be welcomed back to Whittier by organizers with pizza and a pep talk. “There’s always going to be one or two people who have rotten luck, and get that one voter who bums them out,” explained organizer Steve Deline.

Gizella Czene didn’t flinch. She had been on similar canvasses in that neighborhood years for years, accompanying her son. He was then 12, knocking on doors and telling the people who lived behind them that he was gay as he probed their views on same-sex marriage. “He developed the confidence to do it,” Czene said proudly. He is now at college, but she once again drove an hour each way from Van Nuys on a Saturday morning. This time, she would not be talking about her gay son but about her own experiences with abortion. “It’s easier to talk to strangers,” she said, “because you don’t care what they really think.”