Abortion Debate Returns, But Now in a Pro-Life Nation

The abortion debate has returned with vigor to Congress after many years of dormancy, and the result may be different this time around. That's because while Washington wasn't watching, America became a pro-life nation.
House Republicans are taking up the issue in a variety of ways. First, they're looking to close the loophole in President Obama's national health-care law which they say could provide federal subsidies for elective abortions.

They're also looking to strip funding for Planned Parenthood, as part of their general move for budget austerity. And we can expect more moves on this front in the weeks to come.

Part of this is Republicans doing the bidding of the people who put them back in the majority. Pro-life groups are a huge bloc of the Republican coalition and activists demand results in exchange for all the help they provide. Even if the GOP doesn't succeed in changing laws right away, it's good base politics.

And for all the talk about the 2010 elections being all about taxes, spending and the size of government, the issue of abortion played an unmistakable role on both sides.

Of the 22 pro-life House Democrats who voted for Obama's health-care law, despite concerns among pro-life groups about the federal subsidy loophole, only five returned to Congress this year. Some would have lost or retired anyway, but there's no doubt that the issue, and the pressure from pro-life groups, turned some races.

For many swing-state voters, especially moderate, Catholic Democrats, abortion is a make or break issue. John Kerry's 2004 presidential defeat in Ohio could be attributed to Catholic voters who preferred his policies to those of George W. Bush on almost every issue, except that one.

One of the other notable trends of 2010 on abortion was the number of Democrats who used the issue as part of a bid to paint their Republican challengers as "extreme." Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado rallied socially liberal Denver suburbanites to his side by running ads casting challenger Ken Buck as an abortion hardliner. House candidates across the country used the same approach to varying degrees of success.

And while Republicans will continue to be at risk of the extremist label, especially in suburban districts, the last decade shows a remarkable shift in public attitudes on abortion.

FOX News polls show a 20-point shift on the subject in the past 14 years. In 1997, 50 percent of respondents considered themselves "pro-choice," while 40 percent considered themselves "pro-life." In the poll out last week, the numbers were reversed. Half of the respondents said they were "pro-life," while only 40 percent embraced the "pro-choice" label.

Gallup has been tracking the issue since the 1970s, and what their polls reveal is that in the 37 years since the Roe v. Wade decision, Americans became at first more and more pro-choice but, starting in the late 1990s, moved against the concept of elective abortions.

The high-point for the pro-choice movement was in 1990 when Gallup found 31 percent thought abortion should be unrestricted, 53 percent thought that it should be allowed under only certain circumstances and 12 percent thought it should always be illegal.

In Gallup's last poll, taken in the summer of 2009, only 21 percent were pro-choice absolutists, 57 percent thought the practice should be limited and 18 percent favored a total ban.

So how did America become a pro-life nation?

Part of it is generational. For Baby Boomers, the right for a woman to choose to have an abortion was a central battle in the fight for gender equality. The issue was all tied up with the Equal Rights Amendment, women's liberation and other political fights of the 1970s. Being pro-life was equated with being anti-equality.

For the children of Baby Boomers who were not there for the creation of this confusing political hybrid, the issue doesn't seem to fit. Plus, equality isn't as grave a concern for women today. The battles of previous generations seem like remote concerns.

Part of it is also technological. The ultrasound machine has had a huge effect on the debate over when life begins. The mysteries of "quickening" and gestational development have given way to 3-D pictures of little people with little fingers and little toes. Proud parents get these pictures framed and keep them on their desks now.

Add to that the revolutionary advances in care for premature births and in-depth studies of fetal development and you have badly damaged the case that abortion does not end a life.

Social conservatives are usually on the losing end of societal trends. Gay marriage seems increasingly likely and gays will soon serve openly in the military.

Social conservatives have lost their stands against no-fault divorce, gay adoption, smutty television shows and other bright-line social issues. America has a more permissive culture than it did 10 years ago and history tells us that it will likely be even morepermissive in another decade.

But on abortion, it is possible that in the long term, the right may win the battle. One day, Democrats may have to do on abortion what they have done in the past decade on gun control and cede the issue.

Chris Stirewalt is FOX News' digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.