Nanny State

Roe v. Wade Status Quo

Why public opinion keeps activists in check


Perhaps the most striking aspect of yesterday's many observances of the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion, was the relative lack of drama surrounding an issue that commanded front-page coverage throughout the 1970s, '80s, and '90s.

To be sure, pro-life and pro-choice (to use each side's favored term for its position) crowds thronged Washington, D.C. There was plenty of media coverage, both of the march itself and in the lead-up to the anniversary. And both sides aired apocalyptic visions of what would happen if the other side really got its way.

Yet overall, the commemorations were relatively ho-hum affairs, and not simply because of seemingly more immediately pressing issues such as war and the economy. It's because after three decades of legal abortion, the laws and customs governing the procedure are in rough correspondence with the actual behaviors and attitudes of the American public. This is a situation that perhaps fully satisfies no one, especially activists. Yet it should nonetheless be recognized as a considerable social achievement, especially given the topic.

According to most polls, including this one by Gallup, around one-quarter of Americans think abortion should be legal under any circumstances, 14 percent think it should be legal in most circumstances, 42 percent think it should be legal in only a few circumstances, and 18 percent think it should be illegal in all circumstances. These numbers—which have remained relatively constant for decades—add up to a public that overwhelmingly embraces abortion in some limited form.

Support for abortion is not unconditional—there's far more comfort with first-trimester abortions (66 percent) than with third-trimester abortions (10 percent). But such feelings also track with when the vast, overwhelming majority—close to 90 percent—of abortions take place. Were that to change, it's likely that public opinion might shift significantly, too. Similarly, the fact that the abortion rate and raw number of abortion have been declining for years suggests that public opinion is not going to change radically anytime soon.

This isn't to say that the debate about abortion is "over"—or that laws governing the specifics of abortion won't continue to change over time in ways that bother ardent pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike. But taking a longer view, it does seem as if the extremes of the abortion debate—extremes that included incendiary language (including calls for the murder of abortion providers)—have largely subsided in the wake of a widely accepted consensus. Part of this is surely due to the massive increases in reproduction technologies that allow women far more control over all aspects of their bodies (even as some of those technologies challenge conventional definitions of human life).

But the larger part of the relative calm rests elsewhere. As befits a democracy that attempts to accommodate very different visions of the good life, this consensus has little to do with morality per se, much less with enforcing a single standard of morality. It's about a workable, pragmatic compromise that allows people to live their lives on their own terms and peaceably argue for their point of view.

Interestingly, that basic reality should discomfit equally both pro-choice activists, who understandably fear a Republican-controlled federal government, and pro-life activists, who understandably welcome the same thing. Regardless of whether Roe withstands possible legal scrutiny, regardless of whether George W. Bush gets to pick several new Supreme Court members, and regardless of whether Congress wants to severely restrict abortion rights, the mass public consensus in favor of the status quo virtually guarantees very little substantial change in any direction.