Drawing the Line on Abortion

The question for most isn't whether or not there should be a line demarcating when abortion should and shouldn't be legal, but where it should be drawn.

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An estimated 5,000 people march around the Minnesota Capitol building protesting the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, ruling against state laws that criminalize abortion on Jan. 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion with a 7-2 vote.

Today marks 40 years since the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade, finding a constitutional right to abortion until the point of viability. This complicated issue continues to spark fierce debate even decades later. 

This week, a handful of new polls have been released, some pointing to shifting public opinion on the issue. NBC and the Wall Street Journal released a survey showing 31 percent of Americans saying they believe abortion should be always legal, with another 23 percent saying they believe abortion should be "legal most of the time." Some 35 percent say abortion should be illegal with exceptions, and 9 percent believe abortion should be illegal without any exceptions. On Roe itself—which the poll taker described as establishing a woman's right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy—70 percent of Americans said they did not want to see it "completely overturned." That marks a shift over time in the poll. In 1989 when they first asked about overturning Roe, 58 percent said that the decision should not be struck down.

With the Republican Party's recent struggle with female voters fresh in the minds of many, it is logical to ask if the changing attitudes on abortion reflected by the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll have created or contributed to the voting gender gap. However, different polls—and different questions—lead to different answers. Pew Research Center also unveiled a poll leading up to the 40th anniversary of Roe, with data that defies conventional wisdom and asserts there's no gender gap at all on the issue of abortion. They find more women (49 percent) than men (45 percent) view abortion as morally wrong, and more women (30 percent) than men (29 percent) support overturning Roe. Gallup last summer found slightly more women (46 percent) considered themselves "prolife" than "prochoice" (44 percent).

[Join the debate: Should abortion be illegal?]

What does all this conflicting data mean? Perhaps it isn't that conflicting at all. Note the way the NBC question on Roe emphasizes "completely overturn" as well as the inclusion of the "first three months" dividing line for legality of abortion. In fact, Roe permits some regulation of abortion after the first trimester but does not permit outright prohibition until viability, a point not raised in the poll question's description of the case. And on the issue of overturning the law, even Chief Justice John Roberts declared Roe to be "settled law" in his confirmation hearings before the Senate. It's possible to consider oneself prolife or to view abortion as morally wrong, and yet to view the complete overturning of Roe or a total ban on all abortion as the wrong policy to achieve prolife aims. The contradictory poll findings underscore the complexity and emotion behind the debate and no one poll result tells the whole story.

The NBC poll shows a majority of Americans support neither an all nor a  nothing approach to the legality of abortion. The political debate often treats the issue as if it were black and white. Yet the question for most isn't whether or not there should be a line demarcating when abortion should and shouldn't be legal, the question is where that line ought to be drawn.

  • Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Abortion Be Illegal?
  • Read Peter Fenn: Obama's Inaugural Address Was a Modern Speech Steeped in History
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