Civil Liberties

Will the Killing of George Tiller Have an Effect on Public Opinion Regarding Abortion?


Just last week, Denver Post and columnist David Harsanyi asked, "Is The Abortion Debate Changing?" Based on a recent Gallup Poll, which found that a majority of Americans considered themselves "pro-life" for the first time since the question started being asked in 1995, Harsanyi suggested "that Americans are getting past the politics and into the morality of the issue" after decades of legalized abortion. And, he argued, the morality of abortion is a lot more complicated than most pro- or anti-abortion slogans let on.

Earlier today, in response to killing of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller, Jacob Sullum asked why anti-abortion activists rushed to condemn the death of a man who by their own accounts was slaughtering innocents. Jacob understands why the activists might say that, but argues that it's really a tactical response: That they need to distance themselves from murderous extremists.

So what do Reason readers think? Will the killing of George Tiller push more Americans to identify as pro-life? Or will it push voters in the other direction? Does it matter that Tiller was known for doing late-term abortions, which are statistically rare but gruesome?

You go back to that Gallup Poll and one thing sticks out on the basic question of whether abortion should be legal under some circumstances: Since 1976, the percentage answering yes has been around 50 percent or higher (there are a few years where it dipped into the high 40s). That is, it's been pretty stable at or around a majority number.

And the percentage of people saying abortion should be illegal under all circumstances has rarely cracked the 20 percent figure (though it has again in recent years). Similarly, the percentage saying abortion should be legal under all circumstances, which peaked at 34 percent in the early 1990s, has always been a minority position (which currently stands at 22 percent and has been dropping lately).

I suspect that as abortion becomes rarer (as Reason's Ron Bailey pointed out in 2006, abortion has been getting rarer since the 1990s and also occurs earlier in pregnancies than before), it's quite possible that the either/or positions might change, but that their movement will have little effect on the middle position of abortion staying legal under some circumstances. Even those, such as Harsanyi, who is plainly troubled by the logic of abortion, generally concede that prohibition would cause more problems than it would fix ("I also believe a government ban on abortion would only criminalize the procedure and do little to mitigate the number of abortions.").

Back in 2003, on the occasion of Roe v. Wade's 30th anniversary, I argued that regarding abortion the country had reached a consensus that

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….

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).

That isn't an outcome that is particularly satisfying to activists on either side of the issue or to people who want something approaching rational analysis in public policy. But it's still where we're at and it's unlikely the Tiller case will do much to move things one way or the other. The one thing that would likely change it would be if there was a massive shift toward later-term abortions, which seems unlikely based on long-term trendlines and technological innovations.