Disagreements after 25 years of shouting

January 18, 1998|By Sara Engram

ONLY A SMALL minority of the women who will seek abortions this year know what that process was like 25 years ago, before the Supreme Court changed the political landscape for reproductive rights.

But if, at century's end, it is difficult to remember the network of underground connections, the clandestine counseling services, or even the hospital review committees in states that had liberalized their abortion laws, it would have been equally impossible in 1973 to predict that after two-and-a-half decades of legalized abortion, political discourse on this issue would be as raw as ever.

Despite all the effort expended on both sides of this acrimonious debate, public opinion has remained remarkably unchanged -- and remarkably unresolved -- since Jan. 22, 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court swept away state laws restricting access to abortion.

In 1973, Americans were asked the question: "Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if she is married and does not want any more children."

That year, according to the National Opinion Research Center, 46 percent of respondents said Yes; 51 percent said No. In 1996, 45 percent said Yes; 51 percent still said No.

Since 1975, two years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion, results from Gallup Organization polls show similarly steady trends. In 1975, 54 percent of respondents said abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances. After remaining virtually unchanged for two decades, that percentage began ticking upward, reaching 61 percent in 1997.

The percentage of respondents who believe abortions should be legal under any circumstances was at 21 percent in 1975, ticked up to 31 percent around 1990, but registered at 22 percent in 1997. In 1975, 22 percent of respondents said abortion should always be illegal; in 1997, 15 percent agreed with that position.

Americans, it seems, are largely moderates on the abortion issue. Only a minority believe it should be illegal or, for that matter, that abortion should be legal and accessible at any point in pregnancy. Most Americans fall somewhere in between.

And, curiously enough, no matter how loud either side shouts, most Americans don't think about abortion much at all. In surveys asking Americans to name the most important issue facing the country, abortion barely registers.

You wouldn't know that in the halls of state legislatures, where dedicated abortion opponents continue to find creative strategies to restrict or delay access to abortion. The same holds true in Congress, where abortion debates can tangle up foreign aid bills or tie both houses in knots on issues like a proposed ban on partial birth abortion procedures.

After 25 years of shouting, we find ourselves no closer to agreement -- or even agreement to disagree -- than we were before Roe vs. Wade. And, sadly enough, we're not much closer to being able even to discuss the differences.

Amid all the commemorations of the 25th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, Frances Kissling has been one of the few commentators to worry about the gap between these two warring sides.

Ms. Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, suggests that even while supporters of legal abortion need to remind the public of the concern for women's rights reflected in Roe vs. Wade, supporters must also "lead a more meaningful public conversation about the morality of abortion."

She talks of moving from the "hard cases" like rape, incest or fetal abnormality, to the "hard questions, offering answers where possible and acknowledging doubt where it exists. The space between what is legal and what is right needs to be filled."

Given the take-no-prisoners tone from both sides of the abortion divide, that is brave talk. Maybe in the next 25 years it will become less rare.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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