The New Battle for Public Opinion
AMERICANS ARE PROFOUNDLY AMBIVALENT ABOUT abortion. A majority of voters accept the formulation of the pro-choice movement that abortion should be legal, safe, and rare. Yet most Americans consider the procedure distasteful and will accept an array of restrictions on it, particularly if they see abortion as undertaken lightly or irresponsibly. The public's very ambivalence gives the anti-abortion forces a tactical advantage.
The so-called pro-life movement has been able to parlay this advantage into effective stealth campaigns against abortion rights at the state level and in the courts. According to the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), women's reproductive rights today are more restricted than they were in 1973 when the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade. As their data show, abortion would be flatly illegal in 11 states if Roe v. Wade were overturned. Only six states and the District of Columbia are fully pro-choice. Sixteen states require waiting periods, and 21 states mandate "informed consent," which requires abortion providers to give women specific materials about abortion and its risks, benefits, and alternatives before performing an abortion. Currently, 32 states require the involvement of an adult before a minor can obtain an abortion, and in 20 states it is an offense for a nonparent to take a minor across states lines to get an abortion.
The Supreme Court has upheld these restrictions in a number of decisions over the past 15 years, the most infamous being Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989) and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, (1992). Under these decisions, states can regulate access to abortion by requiring waiting periods, mandatory counseling, and parental consent. At the federal level, Congress has repeatedly passed legislation outlawing "partial-birth abortion" [see "The Partial-Birth Fraud" on page A2] and this year passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which makes it a federal crime to harm a fetus. One of George W. Bush's first acts was to reinstate a "global gag rule" that prevents international groups that receive U.S. funding from providing abortion services [see "The Sound of Silence" on page A21]. Bush is also expected to appoint anti-Roe Supreme Court justices.
The paradox of the anti-abortion lobby's tactical advantage is that there is no real mass movement on either side of the debate and that the majority of Americans, at their core, do not want to outlaw abortion outright. But to the extent that the anti-abortion side has been able to shift the framing of debate away from widely shared American values such as privacy, choice, and self-determination to a rhetoric of behavior, responsibility, and sexuality, they maintain the political upper hand. In a climate that favors the political right in the "culture wars," abortion has come to symbolize the perceived excesses of 1960s liberalism. Abortion in this context represents not women's control of their own reproductive capacities or right to privacy, as the pro-choice side sees it, but sexual permissiveness and irresponsibility--a potent symbol in our current political culture.
WHAT VOTERS REALLY BELIEVE
Most polls show that if the issue is reduced to simple labels, a slim majority of the public will call itself "pro-choice" rather than "pro-life." On average, in 2001, the Gallup organization finds that 50 percent of the public describe themselves as "pro-choice," compared with 40 percent who call themselves "pro-life." But these self-descriptions are deceiving--only about one-fifth to one-quarter of the public support abortion under any circumstance. A similar number would make abortion illegal under all circumstances. The majority of the public favor some level of restriction on legal abortion. But polling organizations pose their questions differently, and there is considerable variation in their assessment of the magnitude of these restrictions. …