Liz Hays of Portland knocks on a door while canvassing in Topsham. Bridging the Gap, an initiative through Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, trains volunteers to go door-to-door and have conversations with Mainers about abortion. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

TOPSHAM — Katie McClelland stood in the circle of volunteers. Everyone closed their eyes and took a deep breath of warm summer air.

“When you breathe out, think of all the negative stigma and false facts about abortion that you’ve heard,” McClelland said. “And now when you breathe in, breathe in the power and strength surrounding you in this backyard. Remember we are so, so, so prepared to have these conversations. We are prepared to erase abortion stigma, and we are powerful.”

These seven people were about to go door to door in Topsham to ask people how they feel about abortion rights. Their goal was to explore those opinions in one-on-one conversations, address stigma and inspire people to advocate for policies that increase access to the procedure.

This technique is called “deep canvassing,” and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England started this initiative more than five years ago. In 2018, the organization conducted a field study with political scientists who found evidence that these individualized conversations can shift attitudes and get people more interested in taking action. Trained volunteers knock on doors and make phone calls every week in Maine, and the organization has since taught the technique to more than two dozen groups across the country.

Liz Hays of Portland walks up to a home with Katie McClelland, right, an organizer with Bridging the Gap, while canvassing in Topsham. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Nicole Clegg, senior vice president of public affairs at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said it’s too soon to know how the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is affecting these conversations, but the volunteers are finding that people are eager to talk about it. While abortion remains legal in Maine, about half the states have already or are likely to impose bans or other restrictions.

“People really want to have these conversations right now,” Clegg said. “It’s very much top of mind. That is a reflection of where we are nationally.”


In their backyard circle, the canvassers released their breath and opened their eyes, ready to go.

Liz Hays of Portland grabbed her clipboard, a map of the neighborhood she would canvass that day and some pledge cards. The canvassers always work in pairs, and she and McClelland climbed into her Subaru and drove to their destination. McClelland is a staffer at PPNNE, and Hays is a volunteer who has been knocking on doors since 2019.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning, better for sitting on the beach than sweating at home. Their knocks went unanswered at a half dozen homes. Hays used an app on her phone to log the attempts and moved on. Then, Erin Arneson came to the door, and Hays gave her a friendly smile. She introduced herself as a member of the Maine Action Team – the canvassers don’t explicitly mention Planned Parenthood until a little later in the conversation – and began her appeal.

Caroline Andrews of Portland practices with Garrett Carver of Portland before heading out to canvass on Saturday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“We’re walking through your neighborhood talking to people about abortion and their views on abortion,” Hays said. “I know it’s an issue that can bring up strong feelings for people, and it’s not something we talk about every day.”

The conversation always starts with two questions. Hays asked Arneson to rank herself on a scale of zero to 10, where zero means there is no reason someone should be able to get an abortion and 10 means someone should be able to get an abortion for any reason.

“In the middle means you think some reasons are OK and some are not,” Hays said. “Where would you put yourself?”


The list generated by Planned Parenthood targets voters who are likely for various reasons to be in the middle or higher end of the scale, but the canvassers meet people who are all over the spectrum. Some object to abortion in all cases or would allow it only in certain circumstances, like rape or incest. The canvassers talk to everyone who is willing to engage and try to understand their views in detail.

Arneson ranked herself as a 10. While Arneson put herself at one end of the scale, organizers said many people fall into the middle. They use this scale to reflect that opinions on abortion are often nuanced and also to gather data about how people shift their thinking.

Hays asked Arneson to use the same scale to rank her opinion on whether states should be able to restrict or completely ban abortion. Arneson again ranked herself at a 10, meaning she did not believe states should have that ability.

“There are many individual reasons why someone might need it, and it should be up to them,” said Arneson, 31.

Liz Hays of Portland, left, talks with Erin Arneson, 31, while canvassing in Topsham for Bridging the Gap, an initiate through Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Hays asked Arneson how she formed her opinions on the issue, and Arneson shared that she knew someone who had an abortion.

“And just being a young adult and having access to birth control,” she added. “That was fortunate for me, but that’s not everyone. I could have easily been in a situation where I needed one.”


They chatted for a few minutes, sharing personal experiences and talking about the recent Supreme Court ruling. Arneson recalled being with the women in her extended family when the news broke about that decision and talking about their views together. Hays talked about going to the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., in 2004 to advocate for abortion rights and being surprised when her mom joined her. At the end of their conversation, Hays asked Arneson to rank herself again on the first two questions. She stayed at a 10 on both and agreed to sign a pledge card to vote for candidates in November who support abortion rights.

After they said goodbye, Hays and McClelland paused for a moment under a shady tree and made some notes. “Beautiful conversation,” McClelland said. They continued down the street, buoyed by their interaction.

A few knocks later, Stephen Goller stepped onto his front porch. Hays matched his smile with her own and launched into her questions. After some deliberation, he ranked himself as a 10 on both scales.

Goller said repeatedly that people should have freedom of choice, but he also allowed that states should be able to restrict abortions if a majority of residents want to do so. He also said he doesn’t think women should rely on abortion as a primary means of birth control. That’s a common refrain during these conversations, and Hays tried to gently push back, saying that most people don’t see the procedure that way. On second thought at the end of the conversation, Goller ranked himself a 10 on the first question and a 9 on the second one.

Liz Hays of Portland talks with Stephen Goller, 66, while canvassing about abortion rights in Topsham. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

As they walked away, Hays and McClelland wondered whether Goller would continue the conversation they started at the door with others.

“It’s rare for someone to come up to your door and say, ‘Want to talk about abortion?’ ” McClelland said. “It’s something to talk about later.”


Hays and McClelland had been knocking on doors for nearly two hours, and it was time to return to their meeting place. Their goal was four conversations during the course of the morning, but the program prioritizes quality over quantity, so they didn’t worry too much about missing that number. They gathered again with the others and debriefed as they ate sandwiches and slices of watermelon.

Four of the seven volunteers had just finished their first canvassing day. Among them were Portland residents Caroline Andrews and Garrett Carver, both 27. Andrews found this program when she was looking for ways to get involved after the Supreme Court ruling earlier this summer. They said the training allowed them to explore their own misconceptions, even as people who already supported abortion rights.

“We learned a lot,” Carver said. In particular, he was surprised to learn that most people who get abortions are in their 20s and 30s. “A lot of the statistics I didn’t know. I had that misconception that teen mothers are the ones getting abortions.”

Bridging the Gap volunteers take a moment to close their eyes and take deep breaths before heading out to canvass on Saturday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In two hours, the canvassers knocked on 38 doors and talked to seven residents. Jillian McLeod-Tardiff, the organizing and training manager at Planned Parenthood, told them that every conversation mattered.

“We’ve seen tactics that are maybe more immediate or faster, but I think the way of the future is based in empathy and story sharing, so we can show that abortion is normal and abortion is common,” she said.

They talked about what went well: the woman who moved her ranking from a 7 to an 8 on the first question, the five pledge cards signed. They also talked about what goals they might set for next time: gathering data points to combat misinformation they encountered, sharing more from their personal experiences.

“There must be a lot of thinking about it after we leave,” said Lynn Nielson, 87, a volunteer from Freeport.

“Yeah, to be a fly on the wall tonight at dinner,” said Will Bourque, 21, a Planned Parenthood intern from Portland.

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