Since learning of Samuel Alito’s leaked draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, I have emersed myself in the resulting tidal wave of news reports, opinion pieces, blogs and podcasts. The New York Times podcast The Daily has been one of the few venues offering balanced coverage. They devoted two episodes to the Alito draft: the first featuring hot takes from anti-abortion activists, the second focused on abortion providers.
It isn’t surprising that The Daily only listened to folks working on the margins of this fraught issue; that’s the way abortion always is covered in America. Who wants to hear people who haven’t thought much about the subject rambling on about their mixed emotions?
And, as a May 6 Pew Research survey reveals, the American public is deeply conflicted on the subject of abortion. Sixty-one percent of respondents believe abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances; 37% believe the practice should be illegal in all or most situations.
That sounds like a clear win for the pro-choice side, but it really isn’t. Only 19% of respondents believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances. But there is certainly no consensus snuggling up to the pro-life option, either. A mere 8% of Americans believe abortion should be illegal in all cases.
“Most Americans say the stage of the pregnancy matters, with opposition to abortion taking off like a rocket after first trimester.”
Most Americans say the stage of the pregnancy matters, with opposition to abortion taking off like a rocket after first trimester. Fifty-eight percent of respondents disagreed with the statement, “The decision about whether to have an abortion should belong solely to the pregnant woman.”
The pro-life mantra, “human life begins at conception, so a fetus is a person with rights” was rejected by 65%. Seventy-one percent of Americans come down in the vast middle of the debate, believing the procedure should be either “mostly legal” or “mostly illegal.”
Forty-seven percent of Americans believe abortion is morally wrong in most or all circumstances; but only 22% believe it should always, or almost always, be illegal.
The Daily interviewed abortion providers and pro-life activists because these folks dependably express unqualified, unapologetic and passionate opinions.
Susan Dodd, an abortion provider from Knoxville, Tenn., grew emotional as she reflected on the women she worked with at her clinic.
“So many of them had so many sad stories about — this is why I’m doing this” she said. “And you know, I have three kids at home, my husband and I are working full time, our birth control failed. I can barely feed the three I have,” she continued, her voice cracking with emotion. “You can just go through story after story after story.”
The pro-life activists interviewed by The Daily occupy a separate moral universe. Michael Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, didn’t want anyone to think he didn’t care about pregnant women: “It’s imperative upon us now to work even harder to make sure that we have social services and a safety net for women who find themselves burdened with a pregnancy.”
“The pro-life activists interviewed by The Daily occupy a separate moral universe.”
But that concern was eclipsed by his primary objective. Dispensing with Roe was just the beginning, he said. The next objective is passing legislation to keep anti-abortion drugs out of the hands of women and to keep these women from procuring abortion services in nearby states.
“The numbers of women who have been going to Kansas have actually increased slightly,” Gonidakis explained. “And the numbers going to Illinois have just increased astronomically. So that’s the challenge that we face. And how do you craft legislation that deals with that?”
American opinions not changing
Sabrina Tavernise, the reporter conducting these interviews, never asked the pro-life people to respond to pro-choice arguments, or vice versa. Both sides were allowed to say their piece without pushback. This, too, is unsurprising. Only 36% of Americans say they have given the abortion issue a great deal of thought.
And it shows. Many agree with the pro-life belief that life begins at conception and the pro-choice conviction that the decision should be left entirely to the pregnant woman. These people are, to use the current term of choice, “cross-pressured.”
The opinions most Americans hold on the abortion issue haven’t changed much in decades. Support for the legality of abortion in most or all cases is up a single percentage point (61%) from 1990, while support for the illegality of the procedure in all or most cases has declined by a single percentage point over the same period.
Opinion on the abortion issue, as everyone knows by now, divides most dramatically along political and religious lines. Yet, according to the Pew survey, only 13% of Republicans believe abortion should be illegal in all cases; and 64% of Republicans believe the stage of pregnancy matters.
Alternatively, only 30% of Democrats think abortion should be legal without exception.
The big difference is that 47% of Republicans believe abortion should be “mostly illegal” compared to just 15% of Democrats.
Seventy-three percent of white evangelicals say their religion shapes their views on abortion, compared to 41% of Catholics and just 28% of white non-evangelical Protestants. On the other hand, a mere 21% of white evangelicals say abortion should be illegal in all situations, and almost one-quarter say the procedure should be legal in all or most circumstances.
In contrast, 60% of non-evangelical white Protestants, 66% of Black Protestants, and 56% of Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most situations. Still, 53% of white evangelicals agree with the statement, “There are some situations in which abortion should be legal, others where it should not.”
“Even if American men went silent of the subject of abortion (as some women believe they should) the results of the Pew survey would be little affected.”
Even if American men went silent on the subject of abortion (as some women believe they should) the results of the Pew survey would be little affected. Forty-two percent of women and 41% of men believe abortion should be legal in most circumstances. By contrast, only 9% of women and 8% of men endorse the strong pro-life view.
In general, opposition to abortion increases with age. Seventy-four percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to just 54% of those over 65.
Regional differences also are significant. Only 33% of Southerners believe abortion should be “generally available” compared to 34% of Midwesterners, 43% of Westerners, and 48% of Northeasterners. Even so, only 25% of Southerners and Midwesterners favor an outright abortion ban.
Why are we having a shouting match?
So, if American public is highly nuanced, why has the American debate devolved into a shouting match between those espousing extreme views? Moreover, since three-quarters of the population rejects strong versions of pro-life and pro-choice orthodoxy, why has moderate opinion been shut out of the national debate?
The problem is partly sociological. If you are a white evangelical, and you’re active in Republican politics, you had better be pro-life. Alternatively, if you teach in a secular university and hang with Democrats, you are either pro-choice or tight-lipped. In either social location, nuance is prohibited.
Utter the term “pro-life” in a liberal setting and the air quickly fills with groans and grievance. Bring up the pro-choice option in a conservative venue and the vitriol will be deafening.
The Pew Survey suggests that a lot of people, liberal and conservative, are biting their tongues and covering their butts.
We need to be clear about the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. In the first trimester of pregnancy, according to the Roe decision, the state cannot regulate abortion at all. In the second trimester, “the state may impose regulations on abortion that are reasonably related to maternal health.” In the third trimester, the fetus is determined to have reached “viability,” and the state is free to regulate, or even prohibit, abortion.
In most of Europe, by contrast, abortion is unrestricted in the first semester. After that, the procedure is banned, except in cases where the woman’s health is endangered. Obviously, the European model is too permissive for pro-life activists and too restrictive for pro-choice advocates, but it seems to track closely with the American middle.
“The European model is too permissive for pro-life activists and too restrictive for pro-choice advocates, but it seems to track closely with the American middle.”
When the abortion debate becomes a death-struggle between proponents of the most extreme options, bad things happen. First, we demonize each other. Then, since the other side is demonic, there can be no compromise. So we move from Roe v. Wade (which handed a decisive victory to the pro-choice faction) to a post-Roe world where pro-life views reign triumphant.
If you live in a comparatively liberal state, the elimination of Roe might not change much. Until, that is, conservative politicians enact a national ban. Failing that, we likely will find ourselves in a nation divided. In Red states, politicians will stay awake at night thinking of new ways to stop desperate women from escaping into pro-choice America (if they can afford the cost of travel).
Three-quarters of Americans have a measure of sympathy for both pro-choice and pro-life arguments. They don’t believe life begins at conception, but, like most Europeans, they think abortion ought to be restricted to the first trimester unless the woman’s health is endangered.
What would happen if we started advocating for a third way? Let’s call it “the European option.” We’d catch flak from both sides. That’s OK. Except in exceptional cases, we’d survive.
But here’s the deal: So long as an unrepresentative 25% of Americans continue to wage war on one another while the rest of us look on helplessly, there can be no resolution, no consensus and no peace.
The time for silence is over. If your position on abortion doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker, just say, “Have you considered the European option?”
Alan Bean is executive director of Friends of Justice, an alliance of community members that advocates for criminal justice reform. He lives in Arlington, Texas.
When being ‘pro-life’ really isn’t: How I became a Democrat who opposes abortion | Analysis by Chris Conley
Roe v. Wade, the great divider | Analysis by Erich Bridges