When the annual March for Life was held in Washington, D.C., last month to protest the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, (Jan. 22, 1973), the marchers were adamant and upbeat. Americans are still sharply divided over abortion; but the debate is less raucous than it once was, partly because in recent years changes have occurred in attitudes toward abortion. The ethical and public-policy landscape has not undergone a tectonic shift, but there has been enough movement in that national mood and debate to encourage defenders of unborn human life.
In Roe v. Wade, the court ruled that states may not prevent women from having an abortion during the first six months of pregnancy. It did permit a state to forbid abortions during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy, but it added the proviso “except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.” This in effect legalized abortion on demand, since a physician can easily claim that a woman’s psychological health would be threatened by continuation of her pregnancy.
Almost two decades later, however, the court restored to the states some meager power to regulate abortions. In the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the court, without overturning Roe, upheld by a vote of 7 to 2 three provisions of a 1989 Pennsylvania law placing certain restrictions on abortion. The state may require physicians and clinics to give to women seeking an abortion information about that procedure and about fetal development; it may require a 24-hour waiting period between presentation of this information and an abortion; and it may require women under 18 to secure the consent of at least one parent or a judge before obtaining an abortion.
Moreover, within the past five years public opinion has shifted, partly because of the education the country received during the discussion of the horrific operation known as partial-birth abortion. During the 1990’s, President Clinton twice vetoed a bill banning this procedure. Last October, Congress passed a new Partial-Birth Abortion Act, which President Bush signed on Nov. 5.
To be sure, this new law is being challenged in the courts, but its enactment has been widely viewed as a victory for pro-lifers. In fact, it was a victory for a national majority. A year ago, a Gallup poll found that 70 percent of people surveyed supported a ban on partial-birth abortion. Data collected at the University of Michigan showed that by 2000 this ban was favored by even 56 percent of the pro-choice respondents.
The New York Times, which editorially opposed the new law, made a striking concession in an editorial on Nov. 30, 2003: “There is no denying that America’s pro-choice majority has become increasingly queasy about even second-trimester abortions. Modern sonogram technology has contributed to that feeling by allowing people to view the features of a developing fetus with amazing clarity.”
But the term “pro-choice majority” is itself misleading. A 1998 Newsweek poll found that 56 percent of those surveyed believe abortion is wrong, although 69 percent think a woman should be allowed to choose it with the advice of her doctor. Last July a Fox News opinion poll found that 55 percent of the respondents believe human life begins at conception and that the percentages of pro-life and pro-choice Americans were the same—44 percent in each case.
The Gallup organization, which has conducted polls on the abortion issue since 1975, has found an overall increase since the mid-1990’s in the number of Americans identifying themselves as pro-life. Younger people are increasingly pro-life, as reported by Elizabeth Hayt last March in a New York Times article entitled “Surprise, Mom: I’m Anti-Abortion.” As a sardonic quip put it, a generation of pro-choice mothers has produced a generation of pro-life daughters.
When Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote his long-winded opinion for the majority in Roe v. Wade, he showed more sympathy for the woman’s “right to privacy” than for the life of the unborn child. Since then there has developed, even in pro-choice circles, a greater concern for the child and about late and midterm abortions. This provides an opportunity to pro-life activists; but with the passage of the ban on partial-birth abortion, they have lost their most popular issue. Politicians hope the topic will now go away. Republicans want to move on to the gay marriage issue.
The bishops have correctly seen that only a consistent ethic of life can provide the motivation and long-term strategy needed to go the distance in winning support for legislation that supports mothers and cares for all children, including the unborn. There is more work to be done.