Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / January 13, 1998 / 15 Tevet, 5758
What we really think about abortion
AS THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF ROE V. WADE approaches, the question arises: "Is there anything new to say on the subject of abortion?"
The surprising answer is "yes," because some of the familiar arguments about the issue are based on misinformation.
Researchers Everett Carll Ladd and Karlyn H. Bowman have published, under the auspices of the American Enterprise Institute, a helpful review of the polling data on abortion over the past quarter-century.
Contrary to popular belief, abortion is not a "women's issue" if that term connotes a subject of much more pressing interest to women than to men. In 1992, women were slightly more likely than men to tell pollsters that abortion should be legal in all cases (37 percent to 31 percent). And women were also slightly more likely than men to want abortion outlawed in all cases (10 percent to 8 percent).
But the differences were slight. Most men and most women could be found somewhere in the middle of the spectrum -- believing that abortion should be legal in limited circumstances. Marital status tends to be a much more reliable indicator of opinions about abortion than sex -- with single, unmarried adults favoring a more liberal abortion regime than married people.
It is often predicted that the Republican Party will "McGovernize" itself by adopting "extreme" positions on abortion that will alienate the vast majority of American voters. Leaving aside the question of whether public opinion ought to dictate a party's position on a moral issue, the Ladd/Bowman data suggest that both political parties are out of sync with the majority of voters. Only 30 percent of registered Democrats, for example, think abortion should be permitted in all cases. But 61 percent of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention in 1996 felt that way. Twenty-one percent of registered Republicans believe in abortion rights in all circumstances, but only 11 percent of delegates to the Republican National Convention in 1996 shared that view.
Abortion is not a decisive issue for most voters but is considered, along with other factors, when choosing candidates. In 1992 and 1996, Gallup asked where abortion ranked in importance. The results for both years were consistent. Three in 10 said abortion would figure very little in their decision. A plurality said a candidate's views on abortion would be considered along with other issues, and two in 10 said they would vote only for a candidate who shared the voter's views on abortion. In 1996, 9 percent of voters said the abortion issue was most important to them. Of those, 60 percent voted for Dole and 34 percent voted for Clinton.
Do voters approve of the extremely liberal regime inaugurated by Roe v. Wade? The data on this have changed a bit since 1973 -- moving toward a more permissive attitude -- but the majority of voters maintain the view that while abortion ought to be left to the discretion of the woman, it ought not to be available for any reason whatever. In July of 1996, 37 percent of Americans said abortion should be generally available, but 42 percent favored stricter limits. Majorities do not favor abortion in cases where the woman in unmarried and does not wish to marry the father (53 percent oppose, 43 percent favor), or when a married woman simply does not want more children (51 percent oppose, 45 percent favor), or when the family has a low income (51 percent oppose, 45 percent favor).
Most Americans oppose abortion in the later stages of pregnancy. While 64 percent believe abortion should generally be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, only 26 percent believe it should be legally available in the second trimester. Fully 82 percent of respondents think abortions should be generally illegal in the final three months of pregnancy. What most voters do not know is that Roe v. Wade makes laws restricting abortion in the second trimester very problematic.
Large majorities also favor waiting periods, parental and spousal notification, and the requirement that doctors present alternatives to patients who ask for abortions. In short, despite the rhetoric of rights, Americans remain eager and willing to impose limits on a practice they clearly regard as undesirable.
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