Despite everything, Americans’ opinion on abortion hasn’t changed in 50 years

Pro-choice activists demonstrate outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., Monday, November 11, 2021 as the court hears oral arguments for Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson and United States v. Texas regarding the Texas abortion laws.
Greg Nash

The American public’s views on abortion haven’t changed much in 50 years. The public was divided in 1973, when the Supreme Court handed down its Roe v. Wade decision. It is still divided. When the Gallup poll asked in May, “Would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?” 49 percent said pro-choice, and 47 percent said pro-life.

By comparison, opinion on civil rights changed dramatically in the decades after the Supreme Court handed down its school desegregation decision in 1954 and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Public support for legal segregation virtually disappeared. “By 1972, fewer than 15 percent of whites thought that black and white children should attend separate schools. That fell below 10 percent by the early 1980s.” By 2007, public support for segregated schools was down to 2 percent, and pollsters stopped asking the question.

The same thing has been happening since the court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. Public opposition has been dropping sharply.

One reason for the persistent divide on abortion is that views on the issue are deeply rooted in religion. Among those who say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, 52 percent say they look to religion for guidance on right and wrong. Among those who want abortion to be legal, only 18 percent look to religion for guidance (most say they look to “common sense”).

Almost every year from 1972 to 2012, the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago asked people whether a pregnant woman should be allowed to have an abortion under various circumstances. Strong majorities (80 to 90 percent) consistently supported legal abortions if the woman’s health is seriously endangered, if she has been raped or if there is a strong chance of a serious birth defect in the child.

The public narrowly opposed legal abortions (50 to 60 percent) if the family is poor and can’t afford to have more children, if the mother doesn’t want more children, if the mother does not want to get married or if she wants the abortion “for any reason.”

The latter are all discretionary circumstances. What Americans said in these polls is that they do not believe abortion should be allowed for purposes of birth control. It should be legal only when there is a compelling moral justification for it — like rape, a threat to the life or health of the mother or a serious birth defect.

The abortion issue became politically explosive in July 1989 as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Webster case. Anti-abortion forces were invigorated by the decision, while pro-choice activists felt threatened. What the court did was “modify and narrow” the 1973 Roe decision. Webster invited states to pass new laws to regulate and limit abortions. Abortion rights, the court said in 1989, were not “beyond the reach of the democratic process” — something the court seems likely to say again in the current Mississippi case.

The court said in 1989, “The goal of constitutional adjudication is not to remove inexorably ‘politically divisive’ issues from the ambit of the legislative process … The goal of constitutional adjudication is to hold true the balance between that which the Constitution puts beyond the reach of the democratic process and that which it does not.” The court’s message to politicians was: ‘We’re not going to decide the abortion issue, at least not right now. You guys decide. We’ll let you know if your restrictions go too far.’

1989 was not a federal election year, but the backlash to the Webster decision was still politically potent. Abortion became the main issue in the election of two Democrats — David Dinkins, the first black mayor of New York City, and Doug Wilder, the first black governor of Virginia.

Three years after the Webster decision, the Supreme Court drew a line between acceptable and unacceptable restrictions on abortion rights. The question before the court in 1992 was whether to uphold Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act.

The Pennsylvania law did not prohibit abortions. It tried to “control” abortions through a series of restrictions. The public did not see those restrictions as unreasonable (counseling, a 24-hour waiting period and parental consent for minors, but not notification of the husband).

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor defined a new standard for judging restrictions on abortion rights: The restrictions could not impose an “undue burden” on a pregnant woman. The Court accepted that standard and reaffirmed Roe. Abortion rights retained their constitutionally protected status.

To pro-choice activists, abortion is a basic human right that can’t be compromised. To pro-life activists, abortion is a sin and a crime that can never be tolerated under any circumstances. The debate seems to have no middle ground — except in public opinion. For decades, the prevailing view has been that abortion should be legal “only under certain circumstances,” namely, when it is necessary to prevent a more serious problem.

If the Supreme Court upholds the Mississippi law and reverses Roe, it is likely to discover a great truth about American politics: Once a right has been established, you can’t take it away without provoking a fierce political backlash. That’s true of gun rights, and it’s true of abortion rights.

I once interviewed an abortion rights leader in New York who told me, “There are more uterus owners than gun owners in this country. And when uterus owners start voting their rights the way gun owners do, everything will change.” That may happen very soon.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

Tags Abortion Abortion debate American society Public opinion Roe v. Wade Supreme Court of the United States

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