Ambivalent on Abortion

Friday marks the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The annual pro-life rally, the March for Life, took place in Washington and there were protests--both pro-life and pro-choice--outside the Supreme Court. But most Americans likely have not even noticed. They remain deeply ambivalent about abortion and have pulled away from the debate.

Pollsters have asked hundreds of questions about abortion since the momentous Supreme Court decision in 1973, and the results have shown that while Americans' views on abortion are clear and stable, they are deeply contradictory:

  • Americans believe abortion is an act of murder, and they say it is morally wrong. Yet large majorities say they believe it should be a personal choice between a woman and her doctor. The views that abortion is murder and that it should be a personal choice are in deep conflict.
  • Most Americans would put restrictions on its use. They favor parental consent for a minor, a waiting period and spousal notification. They say abortion should be legal in the first term, but oppose it by large margins in the second and third trimesters. They support abortion if the circumstance of the pregnancy is beyond the woman's control (rape, a chance of a serious defect in the baby or if a woman's health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy) and oppose it if the circumstances are within her control (she doesn't want to marry the man or if she is married and does not want more children).
  • They do not think Roe v. Wade should be overturned.
  • They oppose public funding for abortion. Pollsters returned to the subject after Rep. Bart Stupak offered an amendment to the health care legislation that would not permit abortions to be paid for under the bill. Sixty-one percent in a November CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll said they opposed using public funds for abortions when a woman could not afford one. The December Quinnipiac poll results found 72% opposed to allowing abortions to be paid for by public funds in the health care bill.
  • Americans are almost evenly divided on whether they are pro-life or pro-choice.
  • Men and women's opinions on abortion are very similar.
  • Voters who say abortion is the most important issue to them in going to the polls (usually around 10% of voters) vote for Republican presidential candidates. But Bill Clinton's formulation of making abortion "safe, legal and rare" is a good summary of what most Americans want.

In nearly all of these areas opinion has barely budged since the pollsters started asking the questions. Let's look at a question Gallup has asked more than 40 times. In 1975 21% said abortion should be legal under all circumstances, 54% under some circumstances and 22% illegal in all circumstances. A decade later those responses were 21%, 55% and 21%. And in July 2009, once again, 21% said it should be legal in all circumstances, 57% were in the middle and 18% said it should be illegal.

When people are of two minds about an issue (it's murder, it should be a personal choice), they often pull away, preferring not to resolve the contradictions in their own thinking. We see the same dynamic on free trade and immigration. Most Americans believe trade makes American companies more competitive and provides cheaper goods for all of us, but at the same time want to protect American jobs. People tell pollsters that immigrants take jobs citizens won't take and that they work hard, but they also believe that immigrants contribute to crime and fear they aren't assimilating.

In all of these areas the political playing field is dominated by activists who don't see the shades of gray the rest of the population does. But for most Americans the issue is pretty much settled. They have moved on.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/fotofrog

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