American Attitudes on Abortion and the Goal for Persuasion

by Jack Quirk

As it turns out, the New Pro Life Movement is hurting some feelings. There has been a pro-life movement around for a while now, of course, and it should not be altogether surprising that the attempt at a broader based approach to life issues would be received as criticism of the efforts that have already been made against the scourge of abortion in the United States.

And it is not wrong to say that there is some implicit criticism involved. That criticism has to do with the political bedfellows the pro-life movement has taken on, bedfellows that threaten the nature of the pro-life movement itself. Those of us involved in this nascent movement should acknowledge that we are engaging in criticism, albeit well-intentioned criticism, and recognize that it is too much to expect of human nature that criticism be accepted gladly.

At the end of November Austin Ruse published an article in Crisis Magazine[1], calling into question the legitimate need of anything like the New Pro Life Movement, and claiming that the pro-life movement has done as well as could be expected. He begins with the claim that, thanks to the efforts of the pro-life movement, most Americans are now calling themselves “pro-life.”

Well, people can always call themselves whatever they want, but the fact is that in 2013, as the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade approached, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal conducted a poll in which it was found that “54 percent of adults say that abortion should be legal either always or most of the time….” [2] Moreover, 70 percent of the respondents said that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned.

The Pew Research Center conducted a poll at about the same time, and found that “the public remains opposed to completely overturning the historic ruling on abortion. More than six-in-ten (63%) say they would not like to see the court completely overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, which established a woman’s constitutional right to abortion at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Only about three-in-ten (29%) would like to see the ruling overturned.” [3] What’s more, these “opinions are little changed from surveys conducted 10 and 20 years ago.” Strikingly, Republicans were found to be evenly divided over whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned. 46 percent say it should, while 48 percent say it should not.

Whether people call themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice” strangely does not appear to reflect their attitudes about abortion in any significant way. In 2010, Gallup conducted a poll that found that a slight plurality identifies as “pro-life.” [4] While this represented a growing trend, there had, surprisingly, “not been an attendant increase in opposition to abortion on moral grounds.” Gallup speculated that the reason for this is that terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” might be labels that identify party affiliation. The answer may well be that while a majority might consider abortion immoral, that belief does not necessarily translate into believing that it should be illegal. In 2011, the Public Religion Research Institute found that majorities “of Americans simultaneously say abortion is morally wrong (52%) and that it should be legal in all or most cases (56%).” [5]

Whatever the reasons, the self-designation of “pro-life” does not appear to have translated into opposition to Roe v. Wade or the legality of abortion. The claim that most Americans are now pro-life is, therefore, deceptive. The majority of Americans are not pro-life in a legally or politically relevant way.

What is of significance, however, is that American attitudes about abortion do not appear to be reflected in the positions of either of the major political parties. While most Americans cannot be said to embrace the pro-life position entirely, the current position of the Democratic Party does indeed appear to lie at the extremes. But this is not due to any marked change in American attitudes since the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down.

According to Gallup’s data compiled since 1975, between 48 and 55 percent of Americans have held that abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances. [6] The peak of 55 percent was reached in the 1970s, in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision. Thus, it is not surprising that most Americans agree with the pro-life movement on legislation requiring a 24 hour waiting period before an abortion is performed, requiring parental consent for a minor to get an abortion, banning “partial birth abortions,” requiring doctors to provide information about the risks of abortion to those seeking it, requiring that women seeking an abortion be shown an ultrasound image of the fetus 24 hours before the procedure, requiring notification to the husband, or requiring doctors to inform patients about alternatives to abortion before performing the procedure. But the pro-life movement cannot take credit for this. Most people just happen to disagree with the Democratic Party’s extreme position on abortion, even though they are not completely pro-life on the issue. Noteworthy in this connection, Gallup found in 1984 that a full 50 percent of respondents favored a constitutional amendment to ban abortion except to save the life of the mother, while that number dropped to 37 percent in 2005, even though the pro-life movement was active all along.

With all of this in mind, Mr. Ruse’s claim that the pro-life movement has turned the country against abortion is a dubious one. Most people reject the pro-abortion extremism now embodied in the platform of the Democratic Party, but there is no reason to suspect that they didn’t arrive at that position all on their own. Abortion touches on some very basic questions about human decency, and it is not at all clear that these people needed a megaphone directed at them to become decent on some level. Moreover, since most people in the United States believe that abortion is acceptable in some circumstances, the pro-life movement has, thus far, failed to carry the day on the absolute sanctity of all human life.

Mr. Ruse makes the same kind of error when he compares attitudes toward abortion in the United States with those in Europe. Contrary to impressions, there are countries in Europe which have far more restrictive abortion laws than exist in the United States. In both Ireland and Northern Ireland, abortions are permissible only where there is a threat to the life of the mother. [7] And, as a Guardian article from January of 2016 informs us,

“In most other parts of Europe abortion is allowed without restriction up to between 10 and 14 weeks’ gestation. In most countries abortions can be carried out beyond this point, but only on specific grounds.

“So, for example, in Greece abortions can be carried out on demand up to a limit of 12 weeks. However, a limit of 19 weeks applies in cases where the pregnancy was the result of rape and 24 weeks where there is a threat to the life or health of the woman and in cases of foetal abnormality that would result in a serious congenital defect.”

A comparison of attitudes about abortion between the United States and Europe can be misleading if the laws of the various countries are not taken into account. If there is more opposition to the existing law on abortion in the United States, it is quite possibly due to the fact that American law on the subject is shockingly permissive. As it is, Gallup polls through the years have consistently revealed that, while most Americans believe that abortion should be legal in the first trimester, substantial majorities believe that it should be illegal thereafter.

Mr. Ruse simply hasn’t made his case that the pro-life movement as it is currently constituted has altered the views of Americans on the subject. But he is right when he says that the New Pro Life movement objects to the Faustian bargain that the pro-life movement has made with the Republican Party. The mission of the pro-life movement is to persuade, and that task becomes all the more difficult when inconsistencies can be easily pointed out.

We need to ask ourselves why it is that we are pro-life. The answer is that we hold that every human being is an end in himself, from the moment he comes into existence at fertilization. But we won’t be listened to if it is thought that we don’t really believe that, and it is understandable if we are not believed if we simultaneously support such measures as cutting food stamps, taking away the health coverage of seniors, or even killing the families of terrorists. We undermine our own efforts if we unequally yoke ourselves to unbelievers in this manner.

At no time was this made clearer than when pro-life organizations targeted pro-life Democrats for voting for the abortion-neutral Affordable Care Act. [8]It was a thinly disguised partisan assault, presenting itself as an anti-abortion effort, but actually designed to prevent healthcare reform. At the time, there were forty pro-life Democrats in Congress. Thanks to the efforts of those pro-life organizations, there are now only two. There can be no serious argument that it has helped the pro-life cause to abolish pro-life politicians from one of the two major political parties, but it has certainly helped the Republicans who are now better positioned to tell pro-life voters that they are the only game in town.

Of course, the point is not that the pro-life movement should support the Democrats instead, but, rather, that the movement should not subject itself to such cynical partisan maneuvering. To do so will give us the results that we already see: a movement which holds that every human is an end in himself tied to a political philosophy that does not hold to that crucial principle. We should be more independent than that. We should be more demanding than that, not just for the sake of our credibility, but for the sake of the very soul of the movement.

That’s why there is a New Pro Life Movement. And that is why we are here to stay. We are here to end abortion in America by the most effective means possible, to include persuading the American public that every human being, from the moment of fertilization, and at all points beyond until natural death, is of infinite worth.