Healthcare bill abortion fight takes shape on social networking

Social networking sites are helping abortion-rights supporters and opponents fire up their grassroots in preparation for a big fight in the Senate over insurance coverage for abortions.

Advocates on both sides have used Facebook, Twitter, text messages and new blogs to attract supporters and keep members informed about what’s happening in Washington as the abortion issue has suddenly resurfaced as a hot topic in political debate.

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For example, NARAL Pro-Choice America participated in a campaign that generated more than 97,000 signatures in opposition to the so-called Stupak amendment, named for its chief sponsor Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), an abortion-rights opponent. The language, added to the House healthcare bill, prohibits insurance purchased with government subsidies from covering the procedure. The current Senate measure supported by Democrats is less restrictive.

Social media "allows us to go much broader with our message," said Elizabeth Shipp, political director for NARAL. "We can get out there in a much bigger way."

Kristin Koch, NARAL’s deputy director of communications and online strategies, said hundreds of supporters have viewed pictures of abortion-rights rallies posted on Twitpic or Flickr. More than 60,000 supporters subscribe to the group’s Twitter account, which NARAL has used to provide updates on what’s happening on the Hill or point out supportive newspaper columns.

Another 7,000 people have viewed videos explaining the current fight over abortion language in the broader healthcare debate, Koch said.

Much of the current push is to build up support for a planned Dec. 2 lobby day. NARAL is one of more than 40 women’s and abortion-rights groups participating in the campaign. The groups have created a StopStupak website that includes a petition against the amendment visitors can sign.

Abortion-rights opponents, meanwhile, are also reaching out to their base in hopes of adding Stupak-like language to the Senate bill.

The National Right to Life group maintains six Facebook pages, which collectively have 21,000 "friends." It maintains a blog, stoptheabortionagenda.com, and a Twitter feed that has 1,100 members.

"It’s a whole different world from the days of the telephone tree," said Jones, referring to the old method of maintaining contact with the group’s membership.

Both abortion-rights groups and abortion opponents have long relied on a politically active grassroots base to pressure Congress. Social media allows the groups to reach their members more quickly and makes it easier to attract new supporters, advocates said. Abortion-rights supporters generated the 97,000 signatures in three days.

Since the adoption of the Stupak amendment in the House, the number of friends that NARL’s Facebook page has attracted has increased 15 percent, Koch said.

"What makes this different and where we’ve seen the growth is with young people," Koch said.

Other special-interest groups are using more social media to build up a grassroots support, inspired by the online network President Barack Obama’s campaign team developed in the presidential race.

Technology has dramatically cut the cost of building up a grassroots network. Unions, healthcare advocates, the oil and gas industry, and environmental activists have all used social media to help their efforts on climate change, the "card check" union organizing bill, and healthcare reform.

Shipp said it was important for groups like NARAL to show their congressional supporters on Capitol Hill the amount of supporters they can generate outside of Washington.

"When the majority leader gets 97,000 petitions from pro-choice Americans saying please don’t do this, it gives him the tools he needs to get the job done," Shipp said.