What can make pro-life politicians change their minds? Actually listening to women.
That's what got Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) to change his stance on abortion this week. Ryan, who was born Catholic and has supported Republican efforts to restrict access to abortion since he was elected to the House in 2003, wrote an op-ed for Ohio.com describing why he will now vote in favor of women's right to choose.
"I have sat with women from Ohio and across the nation and heard them talk about their varying experiences: abusive relationships, financial hardship, health scares, rape and incest," wrote Ryan. "These women gave me a better understanding of how complex and difficult certain situations can become. And while there are people of good conscience on both sides of this argument, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: The heavy hand of government must not make this decision for women and families."
Ryan says he'll support efforts to educate young people about their sexuality and sexual health; he also encourages greater access to contraception, which he hopes will prevent more women from having unwanted pregnancies in the first place. It's a big turnaround for a politician who, just a few years ago, served on the national advisory board of a Democratic anti-abortion organization. The timing is important, too: Congressional Republicans have made anti-abortion legislation one of the top priorities of their new dual-house majority in Congress, including a 20-week abortion ban so extreme some GOP women balked.
"We thank Congressman Ryan for standing with women across Ohio and around the nation, and we look forward to working with him," Planned Parenthood Action Fund said in a statement.
Dear Congress: Listening works. Rep. Ryan's turnaround holds an important lesson for politicians: If you're proposing legislation that affects the rights of a certain group (whether it's women, the LGBT community or minorities, et al.), you should probably listen to the people whose lives you're shaping.
Recent research reinforces the notion that actually listening to the people whose rights you're debating can create empathy and have a drastic impact on policy. A study released last year in Science found that openly gay canvassers were more effective than their straight counterparts at advocating for same-sex marriage.
New York magazine provides another example to confirm the theory of "contact hypothesis," whereby directly meeting with someone who is different from you will make you more sympathetic to their differences. The researchers involved in the Science study concluded that "contact with minorities coupled with discussion of issues pertinent to them is capable of producing a cascade of opinion change."
Social scientists have made similar discoveries on another divisive issue: interracial marriage. In 1987, just 13% of Americans told Pew that interracial marriage was completely acceptable. By 2009, most Americans (56%) were on board, while about 90% of young people now say they'd have no issue with a family member dating someone of another race. Why the change? Research conducted by Match.com and the Advocate suggests that increased contact with mixed-race couples played a key role normalizing them in the eyes of other Americans.
Why you should care: Congresswomen are necessary to influence the way that male lawmakers think about reproductive issues (or out-vote the ones who refuse to listen). But we have to help them get in the room, first.
The new Congress is 80% white and 80% male, meaning that for every Tim Ryan, there's another congressman more concerned with pushing an extreme anti-abortion legislative agenda than listening to his constituents. Rep. Ryan may have come around, but given that the new Republican Congress has spent the first few weeks of its reign obsessing over rape and abortion, there's still a lot of work to do.