|Pro-life advocates pray outside a clinic that performs abortions in Green Bay, Wis. CNS photo
With the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in America now at hand, it’s a truism that Americans are divided on abortion.
Equally true, but perhaps less obvious at first, is that the divisions exist not only between people on opposite sides of the issue but often, it seems, within people’s minds and hearts.
This second, deeply rooted kind of division may be the largest facing the pro-life movement in its efforts to restore protection to the unborn.
A tale of two polls
Two polls last year serve to illustrate the problem.
In May, a Gallup poll found 50 percent of the respondents describing themselves as “pro-life” and only 41 percent saying they were “pro-choice” on abortion. The pro-life figure was one percentage point short of the record high of 51 percent three years earlier, while the 41 percent figure of those who were pro-choice was a record low.
|Behind the Numbers
On May 23, Gallup released the findings of a survey on Americans’ views of abortion, showing that a record low number consider themselves “pro-choice,” down from 56 percent in 1996.
Pro-life: 50 percent
Pro-choice: 41 percent
The same poll asked respondents if abortion should be legal in all circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances or illegal in all circumstances. Here is how they responded:
Legal under certain circumstances: 52%
Legal under all circumstances: 25%
Illegal in all circumstances: 20%
But on Nov. 6, exit polls found 59 percent of Americans saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases, against 36 percent who said it should be illegal.
How can we explain the difference? Flawed polling techniques? A huge and abrupt shift in people’s attitudes away from opposition to abortion to support of it?
Almost certainly not. Instead, the reason for the difference most likely lies in something social scientists have noted about Americans for years. On the one hand, a solid plurality — and sometimes a majority — are themselves opposed to abortion in most cases. In that sense, they’re pro-life. But a solid majority, evidently including many of the same people, favor keeping abortion legally available in most cases for those who may want it. In that sense, they’re pro-choice.
The support for legalized abortion also reflects another basic fact. Americans collectively have a hands-off attitude when it comes to passing negative judgment on other people’s moral choices about most matters, even when those choices happen to be ones with which they themselves disagree.
This highly nonjudgmental approach is sometimes expressed by saying that “thou shalt not judge” is the “eleventh commandment” for many Americans. When applied to an issue such as abortion, it’s expressed by saying, “I’m personally opposed, but I wouldn’t impose my views on anybody else.”
Back on Jan. 22, 1973, seven of the Supreme Court’s nine justices had no such qualms in voting to overturn all existing U.S. laws against abortion and imposing a regime of legalized abortion nationwide (Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton). Abortion supporters were quick to spread the word that the issue was settled once and for all: The Supreme Court had spoken, and legal abortion was the law of the land — period.
Considered only from that point of view, the rise and persistence of the pro-life movement has been nothing short of remarkable. Numerous laws restricting or limiting the performance of abortion have been enacted in states. The Supreme Court itself in 2007 upheld a 2003 federal law banning late term “partial-birth” abortions (Gonzales v. Carhart) and, as currently constituted, appears split on abortion.
But President Barack Obama and his administration are solidly pro-abortion — the most overtly pro-abortion president and administration ever. Democrats made abortion an important issue in the 2012 election, spending $31 million on abortion-related campaign ads against the Republicans’ $8 million.
Democratic candidates pressed the pro-choice theme as part of an effort to depict the GOP as waging “war on women” — an effort unwittingly abetted by clumsy remarks about abortion and rape by unsuccessful Republican Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana.
Also during the campaign, Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, spent about $15 million — more than three times what it spent in 2008 — on political advertising and other campaign-related activities.
The organization identified a million women considered likely to support legalized abortion and the contraceptive mandate in the new federal health care law, and targeted them with repeated appeals to get out and vote. Some 98 percent of election contests in which Planned Parenthood was involved — including the Obama re-election campaign — turned out as the group wanted. As a result, attempts to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood have no chance of success for the foreseeable future.
Against this background, the pro-life movement’s task at the federal level in the next four years is less to win new restrictions on abortion — a virtually impossible goal with the Democrats in charge in the White House and Senate — than it is to fight new pro-abortion initiatives by the Obama administration. That includes opposing Senate confirmation of pro-choice candidates whom the president may name to the Supreme Court.
For the long pull, the challenge for the pro-life movement lies in facing up to the fact that large numbers of Americans who are personally opposed to abortion favor keeping it legal. Here the Catholic Church can play an important role by using more effective methods of communicating the pro-life message than it sometimes has in the past.
Last November, the U.S. bishops adopted a new “pastoral strategy” on life, marriage and religious liberty that, if successful, could be a step toward that. Elements of the plan, which began after Christmas, include monthly Eucharistic holy hours in parishes, daily family Rosary, prayers of the faithful at all Masses, fasting and abstinence from meat on Fridays and a second “Fortnight for Freedom” next summer.
The power of prayer vs. attack ads? We’ll see how that plays out.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.