Will Choice Be Aborted?

Americans are profoundly ambivalent about abortion. A majority of
voters accept the formulation of the pro-choice movement that abortion should be
legal, safe, and rare. Yet most Americans consider the procedure distasteful and
will accept an array of restrictions on it, particularly if they see abortion as
undertaken lightly or irresponsibly. The public's very ambivalence gives the
anti-abortion forces a tactical advantage.

The so-called pro-life movement has been able to parlay this advantage into
effective stealth campaigns against abortion rights at the state level and in the
courts. According to the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), women's
reproductive rights today are more restricted than they were in 1973 when the
Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade. As their data show, abortion would be
flatly illegal in 11 states if Roe v. Wade were overturned. Only six states
and the District of Columbia are fully pro-choice. Sixteen states require waiting
periods, and 21 states mandate "informed consent," which requires abortion
providers to give women specific materials about abortion and its risks, benefits,
and alternatives before performing an abortion. Currently, 32 states require the
involvement of an adult before a minor can obtain an abortion, and in 20 states
it is an offense for a nonparent to take a minor across states lines to get an

The Supreme Court has upheld these restrictions in a number of
decisions over the past 15 years, the most infamous being Webster v. Reproductive
Health Services
(1989) and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v.
(1992). Under these decisions, states can regulate access to abortion
by requiring waiting periods, mandatory counseling, and parental consent. At the
federal level, Congress has repeatedly passed legislation outlawing
"partial-birth abortion" [see "The Partial-Birth Fraud" on page A2] and this year
passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which makes it a federal crime to harm
a fetus. One of George W. Bush's first acts was to reinstate a "global gag rule"
that prevents international groups that receive U.S. funding from providing
abortion services [see "The Sound of Silence" on page A21]. Bush is also expected
to appoint anti-Roe Supreme Court justices.

The paradox of the anti-abortion lobby's tactical advantage is that there is
no real mass movement on either side of the debate and that the majority of
Americans, at their core, do not want to outlaw abortion outright. But to the
extent that the anti-abortion side has been able to shift the framing of debate
away from widely shared American values such as privacy, choice, and
self-determination to a rhetoric of behavior, responsibility, and sexuality, they
maintain the political upper hand. In a climate that favors the political right
in the "culture wars," abortion has come to symbolize the perceived excesses of
1960s liberalism. Abortion in this context represents not women's control of
their own reproductive capacities or right to privacy, as the pro-choice side
sees it, but sexual permissiveness and irresponsibility--a potent symbol in our
current political culture.

What Voters Really Believe

Most polls show that if the issue is reduced to simple labels, a slim
majority of the public will call itself "pro-choice" rather than "pro-life." On
average, in 2001, the Gallup organization finds that 50 percent of the public
describe themselves as "pro-choice," compared with 40 percent who call themselves
"pro-life." But these self-descriptions are deceiving--only about one-fifth to
one-quarter of the public support abortion under any circumstance. A similar
number would make abortion illegal under all circumstances. The majority of the
public favor some level of restriction on legal abortion. But polling
organizations pose their questions differently, and there is considerable
variation in their assessment of the magnitude of these restrictions. According
to a June 2001 ABC News/Beliefnet poll, for instance, 31 percent of the American
public would make abortion "legal in most cases," while 23 percent would make
abortion "illegal in most cases." According to Gallup's data for the month
before, however, 15 percent of the public would make "abortion legal under most
circumstances," while 41 percent would make abortion "legal in only a few
circumstances." Regardless, the overarching point is that a majority of the
public support at least minor restrictions on the legal right to an abortion and
a significant minority support serious restrictions on the legal right to an

When those restrictions are specified, the challenge for the pro-choice camp
becomes more evident. Polls show that three-quarters of the public support legal
abortion when a woman's life is endangered by pregnancy or the pregnancy is the
result of rape or incest. But support drops dramatically when the justifications
seem frivolous or an unplanned pregnancy is the result of perceived carelessness
or irresponsibility. According to a 1998 CBS News/New York Times poll, 70
percent of the public oppose a woman seeking abortion because a child or
pregnancy conflicts with her career. A Gallup poll conducted last year found that
62 percent of the public would make abortion illegal in the case of a woman or
family who cannot afford to raise a child. An ABC News/Washington Post poll
from this year showed that 55 percent of the public would make abortion illegal
when the woman is not married and does not want the baby. And in a 1998 CBS
News/New York Times poll, 78 percent of the public favored requiring parental
consent before allowing girls under 18 to abort a pregnancy.

The anti-abortion tactical advantage does not stem from any
dramatic change in public opinion. The public has not become significantly more
anti-choice since Roe, despite steady legal and extra-legal infringements.
According to Gallup data dating back to 1975, the proportion of Americans who
would make abortion illegal in all circumstances has ranged between 12 percent
and 19 percent, while the proportion who would impose some restrictions has
fluctuated between 48 percent and 58 percent. There is no discernible pattern to
this variation over time.

Since 1995, Gallup has found a slight decrease (from 56 percent to 50
percent) in the number of Americans who label themselves "pro-choice" and a
slight increase (from 33 percent to 40 percent) in the number who call themselves
"pro-life." But again, these changes are not dramatic and probably reflect the
ever-shifting fortunes of the two sides rather than a fundamental alteration in
how people think about moral dilemmas associated with abortion.

So we are left with a public that will call itself "pro-choice" yet support a
number of restrictions on the legal right to an abortion. These sorts of
restrictions are precisely what the anti-abortion groups pursue to gain ground in
the courts and state legislatures. Rather than fighting abortion at the
extremes--such as by pushing hard and publicly for a constitutional amendment
banning abortion--"pro-life" groups pursue a strategy of quiet encroachment at
the state level by delaying access through mandated waiting periods, denying use
of public facilities except to save a woman's life, restricting access to minors,
and imposing informed-consent requirements, public-funding bans, and
post-viability prohibitions.

Abortion, Class, and Feminism

If public opinion about abortion has remained stable over time, why
have the anti-abortion forces made these incursions? Part of the explanation
reflects changes in the abortion debate over the last 30 years. Prior to Roe v.
abortion was a medical procedure procured discreetly by affluent women
from their doctors but performed illegally and expensively, often under hazardous
medical conditions, for poor women. Unplanned and unwanted pregnancies were
hidden from view, while the medical community controlled access to abortion.

As sociologist Kristin Luker argues, the drive to criminalize abortion in the
late nineteenth century came from individual doctors and the American Medical
Association, who were eager to wrest control from midwives and homeopaths. At the
beginning of the twentieth century, abortion was illegal in every state, though
doctors retained great latitude to perform "therapeutic" abortions for a variety
of physical and psychological reasons. The 1873 Comstock Law also limited
abortion by outlawing possession of information about "unlawful" abortions and
birth control.

Before Roe, some states liberalized abortion laws while the Catholic
Church stepped up efforts to keep abortion illegal. But Roe v. Wade put
abortion on the political map in a way that it had not been before. Certainly,
there had been a number of important events--such as thalidomide babies and the
advent of the birth-control pill--that changed the attitudes and practices
surrounding reproduction prior to the decision. But shortly after the ruling,
abortion came to symbolize the political controversies over the changing status
of women in society and the liberalization of sexual mores. For feminists and
pro-choice activists, values such as control, choice, and privacy were
fundamental to women's ability to pursue educational and career opportunities
fully and, consequently, to achieve equality more generally. The ability of women
to control their reproductive capabilities meant that women had the potential to
emerge in the workplace and advance on equal footing with men.

For the "pro-life" side, anti-abortion activity became tied to a broader
backlash against the changes wrought by the women's movement. The mobilization
around opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s, for example,
explicitly made the link between legal abortion and women's place in family and
society. Phyllis Schlafly's stop ERA coalition actively promoted the idea that the
ERA would lead to an increase in abortions, despite the fact that the amendment
did not contain any language to suggest such an interpretation. As Donald Mathews
and Jane Sherron De Hart explain in Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA: "ERA
was an attempt to remove sex as a classification in law, a way of separating
individual women from their sex. Abortion was a way for women to avoid the
natural process associated with their sexuality. Thus both undermined the family
by separating familial responsibilities from women. Both ERA and abortion,
therefore, were seen as ways through which women could be released from
traditional roles and responsibilities." For anti-ERA activists, abortion
represented the liberalization of sexuality, the perceived rejection of
motherhood, and the movement of women into the workplace, which threatened their
decision to choose full-time motherhood or other traditional roles.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the public assimilated and accepted many
of the tenets of liberal feminism, particularly equality before the law and the
right of women to pursue careers and be treated equally in the workplace (for
example, to receive equal pay for equal work). In public-opinion polls today, it
is difficult to find anyone who objects to women's participation in the workplace
or supports a return to traditional roles. For example, in a 1997 study by the
Pew Research Center, 71 percent of the respondents disagreed that "women should
return to their traditional roles in society." While two-thirds of the public
said in one survey that it would be ideal for mothers to stay home with their
children if it is financially feasible, an equal number of parents in another said
that "mothers who work outside the home are just as loving and committed to their
children as those who stay at home" (Kaiser Family Foundation/ Washington
Post/Harvard University, 2000; Public Agenda, 2000). Eighty-six percent of the
public objected to the notion that husbands should have final say over financial
matters (Kaiser/Post/Harvard, 1997).

In this climate, abortion, while continuing to provoke debates about when life
begins and the moral status of the fetus, maintains its salience politically as
part of the "family values" agenda rather than as a symbol of the flight of women
from their traditional place in the home. Anti-abortion forces lose traction when
they seem to be challenging women's rights; they gain it when they successfully
link abortion to a larger narrative about "moral decline" stemming from the
libertine practices of 1960s social movements. In this narrative, abortion
represents sexual irresponsibility, which is part of a larger set of social ills
that includes juvenile crime, welfare dependency, family breakup, and civic
malaise. The construct offers a compelling story to the American electorate, even
if there is little evidence of causal connections among these phenomena. The
parties have become polarized precisely along these lines.

Anti-Abortion as a Movement

The "pro-life" side also gains ground because of its organizational
strength. Until the Roe decision, anti-abortion activity was limited to a
small band of Catholic activists and conservative doctors who lobbied for
criminalization of the procedure in state legislatures. After Roe,
anti-abortion activists were able to build a movement from an extensive
national network of conservative organizations, such as Schlafly's Eagle Forum.
More recently, the anti-abortion lobby has benefited from a vast organizational
network of evangelical and Catholic churches, which opposes abortion both on the
grounds of the sanctity of life and because of the challenges it poses to
traditional gender roles. Much like the nineteenth-century social movements for
moral reform and temperance that found their constituents in religious
communities, "pro-life" groups build their support from the ground up in local
churches. After the Roe decision, for example, the U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops immediately began organizing against abortion at the parish
level, even allowing the National Right to Life Committee to take collections
after mass on Sunday. Concerned Women for America, an anti-feminist organization
boasting 500,000 members, organizes from the bottom up with nearly 500
"prayer/action chapters" based in local churches and a membership fee of $20 per

Christian-right organizations such as Focus on the Family advertise their
activities through churches. One can find missives from its founder, Dr. James
Dobson, inserted in church bulletins and in the anti-abortion pamphlets that
abound in the back of church halls. Events such as the "Evangelical Day of Life"
or "Walks for Life" are routinely announced in church bulletins, sermons, and
Bible-study and prayer groups. Evangelical ministers and Catholic priests
encourage the dissemination of this information; according to a 1996 Pew Research
Center survey, 60 percent of regular churchgoers hear about abortion in weekly

Evangelical churches built a massive communications infrastructure during the
1960s and 1970s, both on radio and on television. Their efforts were bolstered in
the mid-1960s when the Federal Communications Commission started permitting
broadcasters to sell their airtime to religious groups to fulfill their
public-service obligations. Conservative groups such as Pat Robertson's 700 Club
were quite willing to pay for the airtime--an opportunity that progressive and
liberal religious groups mostly shunned. As a result, evangelical churches and
organizations still dominate religious television. Currently, 1,500 radio
stations provide 15 hours of religious programming a week to an audience that an
Annenberg/Gallup study in the mid-1980s put at 13 million people.

There is, of course, a well-organized pro-choice community that plays a
central role in the abortion debate at the state and the national level. The
National Organization for Women (NOW), NARAL, Planned Parenthood, the Feminist
Majority, and a host of other national organizations can rally grass-roots
opposition to anti-abortion efforts in state legislatures, the courts, and in
Congress. NOW and NARAL maintain local chapters and Planned Parenthood is built
on a network of local clinics. Other organizations devoted to electoral activism
have been effective at helping to elect pro-choice legislators. Emily's List, the
largest political-action committee in the Democratic camp, devotes its campaign
contributions to pro-choice Democratic women candidates.

Nevertheless, these organizations lack the extensive institutional and
communications networks of the anti-abortion forces. Nor is there an equivalent
to the natural constituency that the anti-abortion forces find in Catholic and
evangelical churches. Moreover, the pro-choice side lacks the allies that could
mobilize a comparable level of single-issue grass-roots support. Within the
Democratic tent, many of the leading groups that have extensive membership
infrastructure support abortion rights, but they do not consider the issue a high
political priority. It is hard to imagine the AFL-CIO mobilizing its locals to
leaflet for abortion rights and featuring pro-choice articles in its publications
with the same vigor that the Catholic Church applies in its campaign against

The Electoral Consequences

While the anti-abortion side is encroaching on the effective right to
choose and is gaining rhetorical ground, the electoral story is more complicated.
The majority of the country occupies the middle ground on this issue, and
abortion tends not to determine their voting decisions. Moreover, contrary to
conventional wisdom--which holds that the gender gap between Republicans and
Democrats is driven by women's support for abortion rights--women lean Democratic
largely because they favor the party's priorities on health care, education, and
retirement security. There are few differences between men and women in their
views toward abortion. For instance, in a Los Angeles Times poll conducted
last year, 42 percent of men and 44 percent of women said that abortion should
always be legal, compared with 47 percent of men and 44 percent of women who said
that abortion should be made illegal except in cases of rape, incest, or to save
the mother. Gallup data from 2000 show a similar pattern--35 percent of men said
that abortion should be legal under any or most circumstances, compared with 41
percent of women.

There simply is not a mass base of women mobilized around abortion rights:
Abortion divides, rather than unites, women. Consider the effect of education on
women's views about abortion. According to data collected for the National
Election Study (NES) by the University of Michigan in 1998, 58 percent of
college-educated women believe that by law women should always be able to obtain
an abortion as a matter of personal choice, compared with 41 percent of women
with some post-high-school education and 29 percent of women with a high-school
education or less. Looking at a "feeling thermometer" to measure attitudes toward
pro-life or anti-abortion groups, 47 percent of college-educated women rated
anti-abortion groups lower than 50 on a scale from 0 to 100, compared with 39
percent of non-college-educated women. Among white college-educated women, the
main constituents of the women's movement, only 35 percent are warm toward
pro-life or antiabortion groups (Democracy Corps, 2001).

Not surprisingly, as the major political parties have staked out opposite
positions on abortion rights, feminism, women's rights, and other "family values"
issues, these differences have emerged in women's voting behavior. Since the
1970s, the parties have been polarized over cultural issues such as abortion,
feminism, the Equal Rights Amendment, school prayer, school curriculum, sex
education, and homosexuality. Democrats are clearly associated in the public's
mind with liberal positions on these issues, while the Republican Party remains
the guardian of "family values." These issues divide women: Generally, highly
educated and secular women adopt more feminist and pro-choice views, while
less-educated and more-religious women are more socially conservative.

These differences had an impact on women's voting behavior in the 1990s as
President Clinton's impeachment and other scandals heightened sensitivities to
values and morals in electoral politics. Since the early 1990s, Democratic
candidates have enjoyed increased support among college-educated women while
losing ground with high-school-educated women. Al Gore won 57 percent of
college-educated women (21 percent of the electorate), 50 percent of women with
some college education (18 percent of the electorate), and 52 percent of women
with a high-school education (12 percent of the electorate). This represents a
4-point increase among college-educated women and a 4-point decline among
high-school-educated women since 1996 for the Democrats. Between the 1996 and
1998 elections, their share of the congressional vote fell from 58 percent to 52
percent among high-school-educated women, while it rose among college-educated
women by 3 points.

Postelection surveys from the 2000 presidential race clearly demonstrate that
despite Democratic candidate Al Gore's advantage over Republican George W. Bush
on matters of social policy, values played a central role in non-college-educated
women's voting decisions. In a survey conducted for Campaign for America's Future
(CAF) and Democracy Corps that compared Gore's populist message with Bush's
values message, white non-college-educated women were nearly twice as likely as
white college-educated women to agree strongly with Bush's notion of respecting
the values of middle-class families, including "more personal responsibility,
which means more accountability in education, fewer abortions, and respecting the
rights of gun owners." Overall, 31 percent of white non-college-educated women
cited Bush's position on family values as a reason to support him, compared with
22 percent of white college-educated women.

In last year's election, despite the candidates' reluctance to engage in a
debate about abortion and despite the relatively low salience of the issue
generally, choice did weigh heavily in the voting preferences of certain women
voters. In the CAF/Democracy Corps survey, for example, 40 percent of white
college-educated women cited Gore's support for "a woman's right to choose" as
their top reason for supporting his candidacy, while only 28 percent of white
non-college-educated women took this position. Twenty-five percent of
non-college-educated white women cited Bush's efforts to reduce abortions as
reasons for supporting his candidacy, and 20 percent of white college-educated

The Future of Reproductive Rights

The public's views on abortion rights are irresolute and often
contradictory. In collusion with the Republican Party, "pro-life" forces
effectively link abortion to the broader "family values" agenda. This gives them
disproportionate electoral power even as abortion does not solely determine
people's voting decisions.

Paradoxically, the continuing availability of legal abortion has blunted the
power of the pro-choice camp. Young women and men recently coming of age
politically simply have not had the same set of experiences as the activists on
either side of the debate. Generations X and Y have no memory of illegal,
back-alley abortions or the struggle to achieve abortion rights. At the same
time, younger generations cannot conceive of women's equal participation in the
workplace as controversial or the two-income family as a challenge to traditional
gender roles. So we should not assume that young people's views about
reproductive rights are driven by sixties-era conflicts over women's rights.

The challenge for the pro-choice movement is how to take back the abortion
debate when for young people, including young women, the language of women's
rights--like "the personal is political" or "the right to control your own
body"--seems remote. There is little evidence that young people are any more
supportive of abortion rights than their elders. In fact, the limited data that
do exist suggest that young people are less emphatically pro-choice in their
views than is the boomer generation that experienced the women's movement. A
frequently cited national study of incoming freshmen that is conducted annually
by UCLA shows that students who entered college in 2000 were less likely to agree
that "abortion should be legal" than were students who entered college in 1990.
According to 1998 nes data, voters under 30 are more likely to agree that "under
the law, abortion should never be permitted" than are all other voters except
senior citizens.

But if public opinion on abortion rights is ambivalent, it is also
malleable--as a recent battle of dueling TV spots demonstrated. The religious
right has long run anti-abortion ads. Beginning in 1998, NARAL's Choice for
America campaign aired a series of TV ads with themes that emphasize a woman's
right to control her own body and to make her own choices. In one of the ads, a
mother is watching her young daughter master a sled. The mother's voice says: "I
want every good thing in the world for you.... Sure, you'll hit a few bumps along
the way, but you'll learn...that it's your body, your life, your responsibility.
Never give up your freedom to choose. Your dreams are tied to it." In another ad,
a young woman is being examined in a doctor's office. The voice-over says: "I'm
the one who must live with these choices. Shouldn't I be the one to make them?"

What's the message? That people who believe in a woman's right to choose an
abortion (or not) are also loving parents, responsible citizens, and committed to
women's freedoms generally. Though the data are proprietary, polls conducted by
Harrison Hickman, NARAL's pollster, suggest that these and similar ads moved
public opinion dramatically when they aired in several swing states during last
year's presidential-election campaign. The Choice for America campaign also
employs grass-roots organizing to complement the ad campaign, which generated a
substantial base of supporters who can be activated through the Internet.

This work suggests that threats to reproductive choice can be pushed back when
activists' efforts are targeted, supported by grass-roots organizing, and
designed to strike a popular chord. In the twenty-first century, few Americans
would challenge women's basic rights in general. For the pro-choice camp, the
challenge is to connect a right that is now under siege to broader rights that
are taken for granted.

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