Nanny State

Aborted Debate


The New York Times says 50 percent of Americans think abortion is murder, but the paper's own polling data show this can't possibly be true. The inconsistency illustrates how oversimplification continues to obscure the issues at stake in the abortion debate.

Twenty-five years after Roe v. Wade, the two poles of this controversy are mind-numbingly familiar: The "pro-choice" side says any legal restrictions on abortion violate a woman's right to control her own body, while the "pro-life" side says a fetus is a person from the moment of conception, so abortion is morally indistinguishable from infanticide. The vast majority of Americans do not belong to either camp, yet pollsters and journalists often insist upon pushing them into one or the other.

This month's New York Times/CBS News poll, for example, asked respondents, "Which of these statements comes closer to your opinion: 1) Abortion is the same thing as murdering a child. 2) Abortion is not murdering a child because the fetus isn't really a child."

Murder is wrong (and illegal) by definition, so anyone who truly agreed with the first statement would have to favor a complete ban on abortion. The second statement, on the other hand, leaves no room for someone who believes the fetus becomes a person at some point well after conception but prior to birth.

Respondents who were not comfortable with either extreme nevertheless had to pick one, seem uncooperative by saying "none of the above," or look dumb by saying "don't know." Faced with this false dilemma, 50 percent said they were closer to the abortion-is-murder position, 38 percent picked a-fetus-is-not-a-child, and 13 percent declined to choose.

According to the Times, these results mean that "half the population consider[s] abortion murder." Given the actual wording of the question, this interpretation is tendentious. It is also contradicted by responses to other questions in the same poll.

The Times and the experts it consulted were astounded that "one-third of the poll's respondents who said they considered abortion to be murder also agreed that abortion is sometimes the best course in a bad situation." But this result is not so surprising if you keep in mind that the respondents did not say abortion is always murder; they said their position was closer to that view than it was to the view that abortion is never murder.

Only 22 percent of the respondents favored banning abortion outright. Seventy-seven percent thought abortion should be either "generally available to those who want it" or "available, but under stricter limits than it is now." When asked about timing, 70 percent said abortion should be permitted under at least some circumstances in the first trimester; the share dropped to 31 percent for the second trimester and 18 percent for the third.

These responses are clearly inconsistent with the claim that half of us think abortion is murder, plain and simple. For most Americans, abortion is not a plain and simple matter. The majority view suggested by surveys like this one is more sophisticated than the press coverage often implies.

People are not merely ambivalent or confused about abortion; rather, they seem to recognize the complexity of the issue. They consistently say, for example, that circumstances–both the timing of the abortion and the reasons for getting it–are important. And they seem to distinguish between abortions that should be morally condemned (say, in the first trimester for sex selection) and those that should be illegal (say, in the third trimester when the mother's life is not in danger).

I suspect most Americans would agree that abortion is not always murder, but that past a certain point–the point at which a fetus becomes a person–it is a form of homicide, justifiable in some cases. This approach leaves plenty of room for argument about when, exactly, a fetus becomes a person; whether there is any legitimate reason to restrict abortions before then; and what circumstances justify abortion afterward. Such questions promise a more fruitful debate than the usual pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy.

The majority could, of course, be wrong. Perhaps the right position on abortion does lie at one of the extremes. But it is worth exploring the nuances of the middle, since that is where we are and where we are likely to be for a long time.