For the first time since 1995, it appears that Americans who describe themselves as “pro-life” outnumber those who call themselves “pro-choice” At least, that’s what a recent Gallup poll suggests. Gallup has been asking the question for fourteen years, and this time around 51% of those polled identified themselves as “pro-life” versus 42% who said they were “pro-choice.” These findings came out just days before President Obama delivered a controversial speech at the University of Notre Dame’s commencement where he reiterated his support for reproductive choice, while asking that both sides of the abortion issue establish common ground and “make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women."
How those stirring words will translate into policy remains to be seen. As Sonia Sotomayor, Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court, faces confirmation hearings, the country is sure to be consumed once again by abortion politics as legislators scrutinize each and every one of her judicial decisions.
Meanwhile, the Gallup poll is not the only sign that Americans remain very conflicted about abortion and how it should be regulated. A week after Gallup’s findings were announced, CNN and Opinion Research Corp. framed the issue a different way by focusing on Roe versus Wade:
“The 1973 Roe versus Wade decision established a woman's constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Would you like to see the Supreme Court completely overturn its Roe versus Wade decision, or not?” In this case, only 30% of those polled said they wanted to overturn Roe; 68% percent of those polled said they wanted to keep it in place.
Taken together, these two polls– along with other recent findings from the Pew Center, FoxNews, and others– reveal a country in which many people are personally opposed to abortion but do not necessarily want to make the procedure illegal for everyone else. (To see the range of opinion go to Pollingreport.com by clicking here). Obama himself has expressed this politically more palatable view of the issue.
Laws Vary, State by State
This conflicted framework helps explain the hodgepodge of abortion laws that define—and limit—a woman’s rights from state to state. Abortion is legal in this country, but it is far more difficult to get an abortion in South Dakota and Mississippi, for example; than in New York or California. These state-specific regulations include mandated 24-hour waiting periods, strict parental notification laws for teenagers and increasingly, “informed consent” laws that require providers to deliver scripted—and some would charge, stilted—information to women about possible physical and psychological consequences of the abortion procedure.
Thirteen states now require doctors to offer ultrasound exams to women seeking abortions, and in Oklahoma the law requires doctors to perform the ultrasound while making sure that the woman has a clear view of the screen during the exam. During the sonogram, doctors are directed to deliver a mandated script; providing details about a fetus’s development and the suggestion that the fetus may feel pain during the procedure.
Along with the newer informed consent regulations, many states have also imposed cumbersome reporting requirements and fees on clinics that make it difficult for them to survive financially. Very few medical schools offer training in how to perform abortions, and protests and bombings at clinics have added to the difficulty in attracting new doctors to the field. The shortage of providers is actually quite severe: Some 87% of counties in this country do not have an abortion provider.
So, where do we stand in terms of Obama’s desire “that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women?”
Congress Limits Abortion Coverage for the Poor and for Federal Employees
Although Roe v. Wade is unlikely to be overturned under the current administration, the Hyde Amendment—a bill passed in 1976 that limits federal Medicaid funding for abortion to cases of rape, incest or if a pregnant woman’s life is endangered—is still in place. Only 17 states provide Medicaid coverage for low-income women to have abortions. With budget deficits looming, some of these states might decide that in the current climate this is a cost they can cut without much public opposition. In many states, women must travel long distances and pay out of pocket for abortions. That means that poor women—the group most likely to seek out abortions—are also the most likely to face financial and practical barriers in obtaining the procedure. This hardly seems grounded in “respect for the equality of women.”
Pro-life Congressmen also have banned abortion coverage for federal employees covered by Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB). The ban began in 1983, and continued until 1993—when coverage for abortion was briefly reinstated. In 1995 Congress once again voted for the ban, and it has remained in effect ever since. A ban also exists under TRICARE, the health plan used by members of armed forces. Since most private insurers do cover abortions (except in 5 states where coverage is severely limited) these policies smack of inequity.
The move by abortion foes to push for “informed consent” regulations—requiring sonograms and mandated scripts that in some cases include inaccurate information (linking abortion with breast cancer is one example)—is hardly grounded in “sound science.” In South Dakota, the state has gone so far as to require that doctors notify women that abortion “will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being,” and that “by having an abortion, her existing relationship [with the fetus] and her existing constitutional rights with regards to that relationship will be terminated.”
Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, challenged this state regulation but last year the courts cleared the way for the new law; defining “human being” as “an individual living member of the species of Homo sapiens, including the unborn human being during the entire embryonic and fetal ages from fertilization to full gestation.” Again, this is clearly ideology masquerading as “sound science.”
While campaigning in 2007, Obama told the Planned Parenthood Action Fund; “The first thing I’d do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act.” This legislation would overturn the Partial-birth Abortion Ban and the Hyde Amendment, reinstating federal coverage for abortion through Medicaid. It would also eliminate state and local restrictions on abortion—including those mandated by the 528 anti-choice bills that states have passed since 1995.
But since being elected, Obama has backed away from his support of the bill. Instead, he has struck a much more conciliatory view toward reproductive rights; choosing to stress the need for “common ground” on the divisive issue and focusing instead on comprehensive sex education and increasing access to contraceptives to reduce unwanted pregnancy. When asked about the Freedom of Choice Act during his recent 100th Day press conference, Obama responded:
“Now, the Freedom of Choice Act is not [my] highest legislative priority. I believe that women should have the right to choose. But I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on. And that’s — that’s where I’m going to focus.”
This conciliatory stance is being adopted by some pro-choice advocates, including the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood. In a recent post on the website RHRealityCheck, Sarah Stoesz, president of the Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota Action Fund, wrote about how this approach helped convince “pro-life” South Dakota voters to defeat proposed bans on all abortion in the state:
“It’s high time that the rest of the country follow South Dakota's lead and stop using the divisive language of the past and start acknowledging and respecting the internal conflict felt by many voters on this issue. Acknowledging moral conflict is not something to fear, but rather, a measure of respect for an individual's capacity to make the best decision for themselves and their families, rather than being left at the whim of government decision makers."
Whether this conciliatory approach will bring the country to consensus on the abortion issue is still to be seen. Obama conceded during his speech at Notre Dame that no matter how much Americans "may want to fudge it … at s
ome level the views of the two camps are irreconcilable." The level of rancor present during the Sotomayor hearings will provide one clue. A more significant test will take place when Congress finally unveils the details of its health care reform legislation. Abortion opponents and the religious right are worried that Obama’s campaign call for coverage of “comprehensive reproductive services” will mean that abortion—along with contraception and non-abstinence based sex education—will be part of the plan.
In the end, all the polling and rhetoric is unlikely to change the deep conflict that Americans feel about abortion. At best, this latest shift toward conciliation will isolate the two extremes—the 23% of Americans who believe abortion should be illegal under all circumstances and the 22% who believe it should be legal in all circumstances. How to design a rational policy that appeals to that middle 55%–while still remaining ethical, science-based, and equitable, will be the real challenge.