Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / January 21, 1998 / 23 Tevet, 5758
Movement on the abortion front
EVER SINCE THE REPUBLICAN PARTY first endorsed a constitutional amendment banning abortion, the media have portrayed the party's position as extremist and, by implication, the Democratic Party's pro-choice position as mainstream. A new public opinion poll on abortion, however, suggests that neither party's position reflects majority opinion on this divisive issue but that Democrats may be farther off the mark than the media usually report.
A New York Times/CBS poll of 1,100 adults taken earlier this month confirms that most Americans oppose restrictions on abortion during the early months of pregnancy, a finding that has been more or less consistent since the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade. Some 61 percent, according to this latest poll, said that a woman should be permitted to have an abortion during the first three months of pregnancy.
Nonetheless, most Americans want some restrictions on abortion -- a position totally anathema to the Democratic Party's stance.
The Democratic platform supports a virtually unlimited right to abortion, for any reason and at any stage of pregnancy, as well as government funding for the procedure for poor women. Yet a plurality of Americans (45 percent) say they want some restrictions. Nearly 80 percent of those polled would forbid abortion after the sixth month of pregnancy, and two-thirds would ban abortion after the third month of pregnancy.
Although the law since Roe vs. Wade forbids states from seeking to inquire why a woman seeks an abortion, most Americans believe reasons matter. The overwhelming majority says that abortion should be permitted when a woman's own health is seriously endangered (88 percent) or when there is a strong chance of a serious defect in the baby (75 percent). But support for legal abortion falls off precipitously when other factors motivate the decision. Only 43 percent say abortion should be permitted if a woman is too poor to afford to care for a baby, and only 25 percent said it should be allowed if the pregnancy would force a woman to interrupt her career.
And Americans are even more conflicted about the morality of abortion than about its legality. Half of those polled said that abortion is murder, a finding born out by previous polls as well. Yet of those who consider abortion murder, nearly one-third say that abortion is sometimes the best course in a bad situation.
Twenty-five years ago this week, the Supreme Court pre-empted political consideration of this deeply contentious issue by elevating abortion to a constitutional right in the Roe decision. If the court had not done so, perhaps Americans would have worked their way through this thicket of ambivalent attitudes. At the time the Court imperiously handed down its decision, many states were already enacting laws that permitted early-stage abortions if a woman claimed her physical or mental health was endangered by a pregnancy. These laws reflected not only the public attitude of the time toward abortion but are much closer to contemporary attitudes than are either current court rulings or the two political parties' positions.
Ironically, for all the bad press the GOP's opposition to abortion has generated, Republicans' recent efforts to restrict certain kinds of abortions seem very much in sync with majority public opinion on the issue. Although the party's platform may talk about a constitutional amendment to ban abortion (except to save the life of the mother), Republican lawmakers have largely abandoned efforts to pass such an amendment. Instead, the Republican-controlled Congress has twice passed federal legislation banning partial-birth abortion, a particularly gruesome procedure performed after the fifth month of pregnancy. The procedure entails delivering a baby feet first and inserting scissors into the base of the skull to remove the brains, killing the baby before the head emerges.
On the issue of partial-birth abortion, it's the Democrats (with some
such as Democratic Sen. Pat Moynihan) who are way out of step with the
Republicans can continue to focus on enacting reasonable restrictions
after the first
few weeks of pregnancy, they'll find themselves recast in the
mainstream, with the
Democratic Party alone on the
1/14/98: Clones, Courts, and Contradictions