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JOAN VENNOCHI

Abortion's changing landscape

WHEN A RAP singer is urging a young woman ''to make the right decision and don't go through with this knife incision," America's abortion wars are in a different psychological place.

Clearly, NARAL Pro-Choice America needs to figure out how to fight on the new battlefield.

Hit by critics on the right and left, the pro abortion rights advocacy group pulled an ad that falsely sought to link Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. to abortion clinic bombings. Why anyone connected with NARAL ever believed the ad was a good idea is difficult to understand. The tone was all wrong, displaying ignorance and arrogance about the public's current feelings about abortion.

Consider the song and video ''Can I Live?" by rap singer Nick Cannon, which I learned about in a recent column by Globe writer Renee Graham. It tells the story of a young mother-to-be who goes to a women's clinic with the intention of ending her pregnancy. She is visited by the apparition of her would-be son, who begs her not to go through with the abortion. The teenager runs out of the clinic, into the sunshine, where a chorus of children sing ''Can I live? Can I live?" That is a powerful, emotional message aimed directly at a young, hip audience.

These results from a recent CBS News poll also speak to a changing abortion debate. When 1,222 adults nationwide were asked if the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade was a ''good thing" or a ''bad thing," 60 percent of all respondents said the constitutional right for women to obtain legal abortions is a ''good thing."

However, when asked to describe their personal feeling about abortion, 28 percent said abortion should be permitted in all cases; 15 percent said it should be permitted, but subject to greater restrictions; 33 percent said it should be permitted only in cases such as rape, incest, and to save a woman's life; and 15 percent said it should be permitted only to save a woman's life. Five percent said abortion should never be permitted.

Conclusion: America is pro Roe v. Wade. But what that means varies greatly; individuals draw the prochoice line in different places.

Why? Antiabortion advocates successfully altered public opinion. Science and medical technology changed it as well. Also, the women's rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s is not the driving social force it once was. And frankly, abortion rights activists cried wolf too often.

''All the passion is on the other side," said Michael Goldman, a longtime Democratic political consultant who now works as the liberal host of a radio talk show for Bloomberg News.

The NARAL ad was passionate but inaccurate. US Representative Stephen F. Lynch of South Boston, an antiabortion Democrat, said it reflected a ''slash and burn" strategy long employed by NARAL. ''There are some powerful, valid arguments on the prochoice side, but they don't seem to use them. It's really about attack against the individual, " said Lynch, who was targeted for defeat by NARAL when he first ran for Congress. Lynch said that ''after 30 years of Roe v. Wade as the law of the land . . . the debate is now about ''What are the limits? How far does it go? "

The Democratic Party is trying to readjust its message. In the last presidential campaign, Senator John Kerry tried to walk a line between a prochoice record and a campaign statement that he believes that life begins at conception. In a speech this year, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York endorsed legal abortion, but said fewer abortions should be everyone's goal.

What should NARAL's message be? ''We need to be promoting civil but thorough dialogue," said Melissa Kogut, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, which played no role in the development of the anti-Roberts ad. ''The public is behind us. They care about Roe v. Wade and they want a justice who is open-minded and is not going to overturn it."

However, after the ad debacle, Kogut acknowledged: ''We have our work cut out for us. We have to make people understand what's at stake."

As for the ''Can I Live" rap approach, endorsed by antiabortion advocates: Rap singers generally urge their listeners to be sexually active, and safe sex is not the first thing that comes to mind when listening to their lyrics. The prochoice lobby should hang some of that hypocrisy around their opponents' necks.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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