January 22, 2013 was the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision by the Supreme Court which declared that abortion was a woman’s constitutional right. The occasion, as every year on that date, was observed by the annual March for Life in which many thousands converge on Washington to protest the legalization of abortion. The event was too large to be ignored by the liberal media, though their sympathies were clearly for another Washington demonstration that occurred a few days earlier, a March for Gun Control (which was triggered by the massacre at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut). Abortion and gun control have been central issues in the American culture war for many years, which makes one doubt whether there was much overlap between the two marches. Actually the pro-life event was preceded a little earlier by Gun Appreciation Day, a celebration of the Second Amendment supported by the National Rifle Association.
This is not the place to discuss the merits of the debates over either issue. [Since you ask: My views on abortion are not easily labeled as either pro-life or pro-choice. On gun control they are “un-evolved”, because I am not familiar with the empirical evidence on guns and violent crime.] What interests me here is one curious fact: The discrepancy between public attitudes toward abortion and toward homosexuality. One might intuit that attitudes toward the two topics would strongly correlate. It seems that they don’t.
A Pew Research Center poll released in January 2013 showed 29% of Americans favoring a repeal of Roe v. Wade, 69% opposing a repeal. This might be interpreted as indicating a sizable pro-choice majority. But the situation is more complicated. Different surveys show that, while the overall size of the two camps has remained quite stable over the years (a few points apart in the 40-some% range), there has recently been a slight surge, even among young people, putting the pro-life numbers slightly up over pro-choice. The “salience” of the issue has declined: a slight majority now says that it is “not that important”. Given the very strong pro-life position of the Roman Catholic Church, it is also interesting that more Evangelicals than Catholics say that the issue is very important.
I think that the survey data suggest that a lot of Americans are confused about the issue of abortion. They drift toward a middle position. They are basically against abortion, but they don‘t want it to be illegal again, though they are willing to consider some limitations (such as parental approval for minors, counseling requirements, banning very late-term abortions). In other words, public opinion has remained quite stable, and stably divided, over time. But there has been a slight increase in the pro-life numbers. These findings are puzzling when one compares them with those concerning homosexuality: Public opinion in recent years has become much more positive on all matters involving homosexuality, including same-sex marriage. The Pew Research Center has logged the change: In 2001 about 33% of both white and black Americans supported same-sex marriage, in 2012 the white figure is 49% (African-Americans are behind at 40%).
The data on homosexuality are not surprising: They are in line with a well-documented increase in tolerance toward all sorts of minorities (sexual as well as ethnic and religious), and it is also congruent with an increasing acceptance of gender equality. The data on abortion attitudes are surprising. How could they be explained? I am not sure, but I am prepared to speculate. I can think of four possible explanations.
First, there may be a technological factor. Ultrasound imagery has made it possible to see an embryo as never before. Especially in later stages of pregnancy, both the humanity and the vulnerability of the embryo is strongly conveyed. Such images have been widely diffused, in the media and often by proud parents-to-be. It seems plausible that this may have made for repugnance against aborting this human being in the making.
Secondly, I think that the aggressive insistence by pro-choice activists that abortion is a fundamental human right of a woman, regardless of any circumstances (such as late-term pregnancy), has been counterproductive. This revulsion probably increased after Congress banned so-called “partial- birth abortion” in 2003 (the ban was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007). This procedure has been used with very late pregnancies: Labor is artificially induced, and the embryo is then destroyed as it emerges (frequently by crushing its head). Not surprisingly, the procedure has seemed barbaric to many people, and its fierce defense by many in the pro-choice movement has been particularly appalling to people otherwise tolerant of abortion. Relevant to this topic is the question of “viability”—the ability of an embryo to survive outside the mother’s womb. Most embryos are viable after the 27th week of pregnancy, virtually none before the 21st week. Aborting late-term pregnancies is thus especially problematic, even if the mother’s health is at issue.
Thirdly, unless survey questionnaires go into very great detail, the wording of the questions is often ambiguous and answers may therefore be misleading. Just what is meant by a respondent claiming to be “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, for or against repealing Roe v. Wade? The simple self-identification in terms of either category leaves out any complicating circumstance. And individuals may have a more nuanced attitude toward the 1973 Supreme Court decision. Thus one may be broadly in favor of abortion, but not on the debatable grounds on which the decision was based (such as the imputation of a “right to privacy” to the “due process” clause of the 14th Amendment).
Finally, and probably most importantly (at least for more reflective individuals), there is a fundamental ambiguity to the labels “pro-life” and “pro-choice”. “Pro-life”: Of course an embryo is, biologically speaking, human life. So was my appendix, when it was removed when I was about twelve; it was not canine life. The question is not whether the embryo is human life, but whether he or she is a human person. There are various religious authorities, from the Pope on down, who claim to know. I don’t. This is a mystery (in the full sense of the word) that is not resolved by hoisting a banner that says “pro-life”. I would ask some of those who claim certainty whether they would want to charge a woman with murder (first-degree?) for aborting an embryo one month after conception. “Pro-choice”: Of course a woman has the right to choose what to do with her own body. The question is where her own body ends and that of another person begins—and when. I would ask those who, in tones of certainty, insist on the right of a woman to have an abortion a month before birth whether she also has the right to kill the child a month after birth—and if not, why not. While raising such questions does not lead to apodictic assurance in terms of policy, they may induce a measure of humility—precisely humility before the mystery of the human condition. Needless to say, individuals who ask such questions will have difficulty identifying themselves unambiguously as either “pro-life” or “pro-choice”.
Abortion continues to be a key question in the ongoing American culture war between conservatives and progressives. Various data have shown that it is symbolic of a lot of other questions that divide the two camps. The issue is unlikely to go away any time soon.