Protesters hold NARAL signs in front of the Supreme Court in 2018.
Photo: Getty

An email sent to NARAL Pro-Choice America field staff and volunteers last Friday instructed them to refrain from using language like “abortion should be legal” and “abortion is normal” in their work and messaging for the organization.

The email appears to have initially been sent by the organization’s deputy field director, Travis Ballie, to the field department, before he forwarded it to NARAL’s “Volunteer Leaders,” according to the email obtained by Splinter. The email, published below in its entirety, instructs staff not to use certain common phrases about abortion in public communications:

- Do not say/write “Abortion should be/is safe and legal”

- Do not say/write “Abortion is healthcare”

- Do not say/write “Abortion is normal”

- Do not say/write “Abortion rights are human rights.”

The email also instructed staffers to “follow NARAL on Twitter and Facebook for real-time approved messages you can use.” It said that “extensive trainings” would be rolled out “in the coming months” and asked the field team to “take a quick scan of our public facing material to see if we need to change anything,” like phone scripts, training materials, and even their signage and merchandise.

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A spokesperson for NARAL described Ballie’s email as a “mischaracterization” of NARAL policy and said he “spoke in a way that was not entirely accurate.” The spokesperson said the messaging document was shared “with lead volunteers in an attempt to provide them with some messaging guidance,” and that the message Ballie received, which they claimed he misinterpreted as an edict to ban these words, was: “We’ve been conducting this research for a number of years, and this is the latest and greatest in terms of our findings.”

Asked where Ballie might have gleaned such a specific list of phrases staffers were not supposed to use, the NARAL spokesperson suggested he may have been extrapolating based on the words not included in the messaging memo he forwarded.

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When asked specifically how Ballie might have reached that “mischaracterization” about words not to use, the spokesperson told Splinter, “I have no idea where he got that from.” Ballie directed all inquiries to the organization’s communications department and declined to comment further.

Originally known as the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws when it was founded in 1969—four years before the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade—NARAL is one of the oldest organizations advocating for abortion rights in America. NARAL’s advocacy activities include lobbying, state-level advocacy, endorsements of and donations to pro-choice politicians, and grassroots organizing. Volunteers engage in canvassing, phonebanking, and attending town hall meetings. It had a revenue of just under $8 million dollars in 2017.

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It’s worth noting that, as of publication, NARAL’s website still includes many references to the concept that abortion should be legal and that “reproductive rights are human rights.”

Other parts of the email hinted that these plans might be controversial and perhaps not final. According to the email, the organization’s communications department “has done extensive poll and focus group testing of messaging to voters and the general public,” and the “research is compelling enough that we have already been instructed to not use the [above] terms in any external communications.” But the email also said the communications department is working to schedule “staff trainings to explain in more detail their reasoning and answer questions,” and takes care to note that the avoidance doesn’t reflect their beliefs and may be temporary:

I want to re-iterate, we are not avoiding those terms because WE or OUR BASE do not believe in these statements. We are avoiding them until our Comms team has a chance to present the compelling reasons they found for why these messages are less helpful for us, especially with broader general public communications.

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The email gives the impression that the communications department had put some kind of emergency, temporary ban on using common abortion advocacy phrases like “abortion is healthcare” because of supposedly compelling research indicating this might be ineffective. But the email also hinted that the team isn’t done convincing the rest of the organization that this is the right course—they haven’t had “a chance to present the compelling reasons” yet.

The messaging memo attached to the email emphasizes instead three major points: “Show understanding for women and families,” “Call out right-wing politicians,” and “Embolden the majority/reassure soft supporters.” For the first category, for example, the document lists an “associated value” of “empathy,” with the key message being: “We cannot make a woman’s decisions because we don’t know her heart.” The last messaging pillar’s associated value is “safety in affiliation” which “speaks to the shared values and concerns of both strong allies and those who oppose political interference even if they are personally against abortion.”

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The document also includes this helpful graphic to illustrate the values they seek to emphasize.

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The revelation of such a fundamental shift in public messaging comes on the heels of upheaval at Planned Parenthood, which earlier this month ousted President Leana Wen just eight months after she took the role. Much of that was due to her apparent unsuitability for the role, according to staffers who spoke to Rolling Stone, with Wen being unfamiliar with “basics of political organizing”—but also due to “her belief that she could de-politicize Planned Parenthood.” Wen reportedly believed Planned Parenthood should focus on promoting the idea of abortion as healthcare, but without understanding the impossibility of depoliticizing the issue in doing so.

Planned Parenthood may have avoided that trap by ousting Wen. But at a time when abortion rights are eroding faster than any point since Roe, the idea that NARAL might be shying away from messaging like “abortion should be legal”—or attempting to destigmatize abortion by saying it’s normal or is like any other healthcare procedure—is troubling. It’s also hard to shake the horrible thought that a consultant probably got paid more money than most people make in a month to produce this.

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Here’s the original email as forwarded to us but with email addresses removed:

From: Travis Ballie

Date: Fri, Jul 26, 2019 at 12:44 PM

Subject: Fwd: PLEASE READ ASAP: Messaging to Avoid

To: Travis Ballie

Hello Volunteer Leaders!

I wanted you to see and read this important update as soon as you can. Let me know if you have any questions!

————— Forwarded message ————-

From: Travis Ballie 

Date: Fri, Jul 26, 2019 at 1:35 PM

Subject: PLEASE READ ASAP: Messaging to Avoid

To: !Field Department, Kate Revaux

Hello team!

I am going to reserve time in our next Dept check in to allow time for a conversation on this, but for now here is what I need you to know and do.

What we need: Our Comms Dept has done extensive poll and focus group testing of messaging to voters and the general public. They are working schedule a staff trainings to explain in more detail their reasoning and answer questions, but the research is compelling enough that we have already been instructed to not use the following terms in any external communications:

- Do not say/write “Abortion should be/is safe and legal”

- Do not say/write “Abortion is healthcare”

- Do not say/write “Abortion is normal”

- Do not say/write “Abortion rights are human rights.”

What you can say instead: Please see the attached document “NARAL Messaging Memo”. Also, please follow NARAL on Twitter and Facebook for real-time approved messages you can use.

I want to re-iterate, we are not avoiding those terms because WE or OUR BASE do not believe in these statements. We are avoiding them until our Comms team has a chance to present the compelling reasons they found for why these messages are less helpful for us, especially with broader general public communications.

What’s Next: In the coming months, extensive trainings for staff and volunteers leaders will be scheduled. In addition to ceasing to use these terms in any future emails, scripts, swag or trainings/webinars with members, I also would like all of us to take a quick scan of our public facing material to see if we need to change anything, they may include:

- Generic photos + event description copy we use for Mobilize events.

- Our current signs in stock and other swag

- Live phone scripts

- Live toolkits

- Training materials/handbooks

- What else?

Thank you all! I look forward to chatting more in our weekly check-in.

And here is the full messaging memo provided to NARAL field staff and volunteers: