Wendy Davis vs. Kermit Gosnell: Our Stupid Abortion Debate

Don't expect the press or politicians to care much what most Americans think about abortion.


Note: This article originally appeared at The Daily Beast. Read it there.

When God shuts one window in the culture war, he opens another.

If last week's Supreme Court rulings cooled some of the passions about same-sex marriage by returning the issue at least temporarily to the states, then abortion has moved to the front burner after Democratic Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis's 11-hour filibuster of a Republican bill that would have banned almost all abortions in the Lone Star State after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The media response to Davis's filibuster, which dominated Twitter and other social media last Tuesday, ran to the extremes that we've come to expect in any discussion of supposedly divisive social issues. Depending on your point of view, Davis is either a brave hero fighting for women everywhere or the second coming ofKermit Gosnell, the notorious Philadelphia doctor recently found guilty of murdering babies.

So despite decades of polling data showing that large majorities of Americans believe abortion should be legal under some circumstances, you could be excused for thinking there are only two possible positions when it comes to terminating pregnancies: either all abortions should be allowed, or none should be.

Yet the most striking thing about attitudes toward abortion is how stable they've been over the 40 years since Roe v. Wade. Gallup has been tracking public sentiment on the matter since 1975, when 22 percent of Americans agreed that abortion should be illegal under any circumstances and 21 percent believed it should be legal under any circumstances. Those numbers are now 18 percent and 28 percent respectively. In 1975 54 percent believed abortion "should be legal only under certain circumstances." The number is now 52 percent and has never gone above 61 percent or below 48 percent. Over the past 15 years, the number of Americans calling themselves "pro-life" and "pro-choice" has narrowed to a few points, with 48 percent identifying as pro-choice and 44 percent as pro-life (in 2011, those figures were basically flipped).

Official political stances on abortion are absolutely Manichaean, however, with the Republican Party and most of its leading figures stressing that life begins at conception, a belief that would outlaw virtually all abortions except those necessary to protect the health of the mother. The Democratic Party platform—and most of its highest-profile members, including President Barack Obama—"strongly and unequivocally supports" abortion at any time and for any reason during a pregnancy.

Most Americans reject such categorical, extreme views and instead offer conditional support for abortion depending on when it's performed. Gallup found that while 61 percent of Americans think abortion for should mostly be legal in the first three months of pregnancy and 27 percent felt it should be legal in the second trimester, just 14 percent agreed it should be allowed on demand in the final three months.

Unlike their political representatives, then, Americans hold a far more nuanced view of abortion, and one that comports with the reality of the procedure. Of the roughly 1 million abortions performed a year in America, about 90 percent take place within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and only 1 percent take place after 20 weeks (in fact, over the past decade, there has been a marked trend toward earlier abortions). That helps explain why 62 percent of Texans supported S.B. 5, the bill that Wendy Davis filibustered.

There's no question that mostly Republican legislators in a variety of states are pushing to restrict abortion. The Alan Guttmacher Institute notes that states "enacted 92 provisions restricting abortion in 2011, nearly triple the previous record of 34 in 2005." Yet most of these restrictions—which have to do with waiting periods, the use of taxpayer dollars, parental notification for underage women—ultimately have little to no effect on the number of procedures actually performed. And as Guttmacher acknowledges, the more extreme the restriction, the less likely it is to become law. Hence, Mississippi voters in 2011 voted down an amendment to the state constitution that would have defined a person as "every human being from the moment of fertilization."

In Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized America, the political scientist Morris P. Fiorina documents how, contrary to the way we talk about many social issues, there is broad agreement over topics such as immigration, gay marriage, the environment, tolerance, and abortion. Forget what you think you know about red and blue states, he counsels. When you look at what most people believe, America is mostly purple. He also helps to explain how political discourse over these same issues is typically divorced from mainstream opinion. Part of the reason, says Fiorina, is that the operatives who control political parties and much of our media discussions are from the extreme edges of virtually any given topic. The result is a major disconnect between what most people think about various topics and what most politicians and media commenters espouse. No topic offers up a better example of that dynamic than abortion.

As a diehard libertarian, I'm not arguing that issues of basic rights should be put to a majority vote (for the record, I'm pro-choice). God, no.

But if you're actually interested in persuading people to your point of view or effecting social change, it certainly behooves you to understand where they are on a given topic. You wouldn't know that from the way politicians and the press talk about abortion. Sadly, as abortion reclaims its leading role in America's culture wars, get set for a lot of heat and very little light. And virtually no interest whatsoever in what the majority of Americans actually think about the topic.

Note: This article originally appeared at The Daily Beast. Read it there.

Related Video: On May 26, Gillespie moderated a discussion on "Abortion & Libertarians" featuring Ronald Bailey, Mollie Hemingway, and Katherine Mangu-Ward. Watch it below or go here for downloadable versions and more info.