Sunday, November 22, 2009

Americans’ opinion on access to abortion unwavering

Originally published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 11/22/09

A CBS News poll of adults taken in early October asked: “Which of these comes closest to your view? Abortion should be generally available to those who want it. Or, Abortion should be available, but under stricter limits than it is now. Or, Abortion should not be permitted.” Forty-one percent indicated generally available, 35 percent stricter limits, 20 percent indicated it should not be permitted and 4 percent were unsure. On Nov. 7, the Congress voted 55 percent to 45 percent to impose stricter limits on abortion through the Stupak Amendment that restricts the use of public monies in either the “public option,” insurance exchanges or in use of insurance credits. Adding together those who indicated stricter limits and those who oppose abortion entirely, you account for 55 percent of the adults polled. has compiled the results of 349 polls of Americans on the subject of abortion covering more than 30 years.

Examining these polls, I’m struck how consistent the results are, how little change there is across the years. For instance, Gallup asked a similar question in April 1975, “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?” Twenty-one percent indicated legal under any circumstances, 54 percent legal only under certain circumstances, 22 percent illegal in all circumstances, and 3 percent were unsure. Gallup last asked this question in July ‘09, the findings were virtually the same, 21 percent, 57 percent, 18 percent, and 4 percent.

Time/CNN polled in April 1989, asking: “Do you favor or oppose the Supreme Court ruling that women have the right to have an abortion during the first three months of their pregnancy?” Fifty-four percent favored, 39 percent opposed, and 7 percent were unsure. The same question was asked in January 2003 (the most recent for this question) and the results were nearly identical: 55 percent, 40 percent and 5 percent.

Anyone who follows public opinion on the abortion issue knows that public opinion has remained stable since the 1973 Roe v Wade. So, why does the controversy still rage so hotly? It lies in understanding what the poll results really say.

While public opinion doesn’t seem to change, abortion law, availability and access have. Perhaps the first legal restriction was passed in 1976 in Missouri, a parental notification law, which now at least 35 states have. A spousal notification law was passed in Pennsylvania, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it in 1992. Twenty-four states have a mandatory waiting or counseling period before a woman can get an abortion. In 1976, the Hyde Amendment banned appropriated funds for the Department of Health and Human Services to be used for abortion services. The effect of these and other measures is to restrict the access or availability of abortion to women, despite the overall public support for the Roe decision. Harris Polls, taken 14 times since 1973 and last taken in 2009, consistently show a majority favoring the Roe decision. The Supreme Court has at least four times upheld Roe in subsequent rulings.

The movement has been to restrict abortion either through direct laws such as parental notification laws, waiting periods or restricting access through funding restrictions. Compared to the mid 1970s, the availability of abortion is much less than what it used to be. Yet, support for more restrictions remains constant. When those who support more restrictions combine with those who oppose abortion, we can expect more and more restrictions.

I wish pollsters would ask a question about abortion similar to one they have asked over the years about gun control: “In general, do you feel that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict or kept as they are now?: Asking about keeping laws, availability or access as it is now, would be very telling about where the future of abortion availability will head. With gun laws, 78 percent favored stricter laws in 1990, and as gun laws got stricter, public opinion shifted to keeping things as they are, from 17 percent in 1990 to 43 percent in October 2009 (Gallup Poll).

Unlike American’s opinion on gun control, which seems to respond to changes in those laws, American’s opinion on abortion seems “inelastic” with respect to the availability or access to abortion services. A coalition of those who favor stricter laws or narrowed availability and those who oppose abortion in any circumstances, suggests women’s ability to exercise their constitutional right will continue to be narrowed. Perhaps pro-choice groups could learn something from pro-gun groups about defending a constitutional right in face of political majorities to restrict it.

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