Americans largely support legal, rare abortion, poll finds Issue strongly divisive

half consider it murder


Twenty-five years and nearly 30 million abortions after the Supreme Court's landmark Roe vs. Wade decision, the American public still largely supports legalized abortion but says it should be harder to get and less readily chosen, the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll shows.

The country remains irreconcilably split over what many consider the most divisive American issue since slavery, with half the population considering abortion murder, the poll found.

Despite a quarter-century of lobbying, debating and protesting by the camps that call themselves "pro-choice" and "pro-life," that schism has remained virtually unaltered.

But beneath that basic divide, public opinion has shifted notably away from general acceptance of legal abortion and toward an evolving center of gravity: a more nuanced, conditional acceptance that some call a "permit but discourage" model.

Almost half of those polled said it was too easy to get an abortion these days.

Public support for legal abortion plummets from 61 percent if it is performed in the first three months of a woman's pregnancy to only 15 percent in the second three months.

Some reasons sometimes given for choosing abortion have become less persuasive.

In 1989, for example, when people were asked whether a pregnant woman should be able to get a legal abortion if her pregnancy would force her to interrupt her career, 37 percent said yes and 56 percent said no; in 1998, only 25 percent said yes and 70 percent said no.

Similarly, in 1989, 48 percent thought an interrupted education was enough to justify a teen-age girl's abortion; that dropped to 42 percent this year.

Support remained overwhelming, however, for women who sought abortions because they had been raped, their health was endangered, or there was a strong chance of a defect in the fetus.

The survey, the first New York Times/CBS News Poll devoted to abortion since 1989, was based on telephone interviews with 1,101 people around the country and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The findings include:

Overall support for abortion dropped from 40 percent in 1989 to 32 percent in 1998. Those who said it should be available but stricter rose from 40 percent to 45 percent.

The contingent who said abortion should not be permitted comprised 18 percent in 1989 and is now at 22 percent.

Nearly 80 percent of respondents supported both parental consent and waiting periods for minors seeking abortions.

Nearly 60 percent of those polled that the government should stay out of decisions on whether abortion should be legal. More than 75 percent opposed a constitutional amendment banning abortions.

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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