Published March 12, 2006
WASHINGTON – For all the recent tumult over abortion, one thing has remained surprisingly stable: Americans have proved extremely consistent in their beliefs about the procedure -- and extremely conflicted in their views.
A solid majority long have felt that Roe v. Wade should be upheld. Yet most support at least some restrictions on when abortions can be performed. Most think having an abortion should be a personal choice. But they also think it is murder.
"Rock solid in its absolutely contradictory opinions" is how public opinion expert Karlyn Bowman describes the nation's mind-set.
If public opinion is stable, the political landscape is anything but.
The arrival of two new justices on the Supreme Court has stoked speculation about how abortion laws could be affected. Also, there has been a flurry of action at the state level to ban or sharply restrict access to the procedure.
In 2005, states enacted 52 measures to restrict access to abortion, according to the private Guttmacher Institute, and more are pending. Most notably, South Dakota this month outlawed almost all abortions. Supporters hope the move will provoke a legal challenge that results in the new, more conservative Supreme Court overturning Roe.
Even with the new justices, however, there still are five votes to uphold the 1973 landmark ruling that established a woman's right to an abortion.
There is no evidence that all this activity is causing Americans to rethink their views.
"When we as a society make up our minds about something, as we have about abortion, most people tend to pull away from it," says Bowman, an American Enterprise Institute fellow who has studied abortion opinion over the decades. "Something really significant has to occur to bring Americans back into the debate."
An AP-Ipsos poll finds that most Americans are ensconced in what one policy analyst calls the "big mushy middle" on this issue.
In this latest poll, 19 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal in all cases; 16 percent said it should never be legal; 6 percent did not know. That left nearly three-fifths somewhere in between, believing abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances.
Dicing the same data a different way, 52 percent of those surveyed thought abortion should be legal in most or all cases; 43 percent said it should be illegal most or all of the time.
The survey, taken Feb. 28-March 2, found that men's and women's views were similar, although men were a little more likely to be undecided.
With slight shifts one way or another, this is about where Americans have been for decades.
"You have this very stable support for a principle, but a willingness to limit it in lots of circumstances over the last decade," said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard's School of Public Health.
If Americans are fairly set in what they think, the challenge for interest groups and politicians is to frame the debate in ways that will alter how people vote, whether they get involved and to whom they contribute money.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said recent activity has served as a wake-up call to supporters who had not felt that abortion rights were threatened. She said the organization has seen an increase in interest that could translate into a shift in votes in future elections.
David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, said the discussion about partial-birth abortion has helped solidify anti-abortion sentiment. The Supreme Court will hear arguments this fall on a federal ban of the procedure; a ruling is likely next year as the presidential campaign gets under way.
With all the recent activity, abortion is more likely than ever to play a central role in coming elections, and political consultants of all stripes are pondering how to use it to best advantage.
In the AP poll, two-thirds of Democrats said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while two-thirds of Republicans said it should be illegal all or most of the time.
Bowman said that about 9 percent to 13 percent of voters tend to cast their ballots based on a candidate's stance on abortion, with Republicans tending to benefit the most from these single-issue voters at the national level while results are more mixed in state races. The recent developments could be significant in rallying voters, particularly in off-year elections, she said.
Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way, a strategy group for moderate Democrats, said anti-abortion forces made significant inroads during the 1990s by appealing to what he calls the "abortion grays" -- those in the middle who do not think abortion should be completely legal or illegal.
They did this, he said, by pushing restrictions on access to abortion rather than making a direct challenge to Roe. Abortion rights supporters, he said, alienated those in the middle with their rigid opposition to any restrictions.
With South Dakota's move to ban almost all abortions, progressive Democrats have an opportunity to "win the battle of reasonableness" by positioning the party as one that wants to reduce abortions while preserving a woman's right to have one, he said.
A Third Way "message memo" suggests candidates promote policies to reduce unintended pregnancies, such as improving access to contraceptives, and back efforts to support pregnant women who want to give birth, including helping them remain in school.