Here is an amazing fact — over 35 years after the legalization of abortion this nation is still deeply divided over the issue. America has an unsettled conscience on abortion, and this most contentious of moral issues may be further from resolution than at any moment since the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973.
A new Gallup poll tells the story. The headline of the report from Gallup should encourage pro-life Americans: “More Americans ‘Pro-Life’ Than ‘Pro-Choice’ for First Time.” Indeed, 51% of those polled indicated that they are “pro-life” on the issue of abortion. Prior to this poll, the highest percentage identifying as pro-life was 46%, and that was in August 2001 and May 2002.
Only 42% of respondents identified themselves as “pro-choice.” And, even as the percentage of those identifying as pro-life grew, the number of Americans who believe that abortion should be legal under all circumstances fell to 23%. According to the data, 53% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal under some circumstances and 22% believe that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances. That means that fully 60% of Americans are opposed to removing all legal restriction to abortion — a stunningly large majority.
As the Gallup organization noted, this means that most Americans fall into some middle position on abortion. As other surveys and polls have made clear, a majority of Americans want some access to legal abortion, but want some forms of abortion and abortions under some circumstances to be illegal. They also want some abortions to be illegal but they do not want women arrested for seeking or securing an abortion. They are opposed to the claim that women should have access to abortion for any reason at all, but they are also unclear about what circumstances should make an abortion legal.
In other words, Americans are confused.
The Gallup organization confirmed its findings through additional polling and research. It is clear that many Americans are rethinking the abortion question, and it is also clear that many Americans hold confused, contradictory, or inconsistent positions on issues related to abortion.
All this points to an unsettled conscience on abortion, and this confusion is perhaps deeper now than at any point since 1973.
Responding to the new data, Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America told The Los Angeles Times: “I am pretty confident that Americans really don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned.” Keenan also pointed to recent elections in which pro-choice candidates achieved electoral success, starting with President Barack Obama.
In this context, Kennan’s statement looks quite defensive and pained. The best she can do is to offer her assurance that “Americans really don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned.” That is hardly a ringing defense of abortion as a basic right — an argument central to American feminism and to the pro-choice movement throughout recent decades.
On the other hand, Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, told the paper: “People are generally pro-life depending on how you ask the question.” This new poll from Gallup seems to confirm her confidence. At the same time, her qualification of “depending on how you ask the question” is huge. Kennan can rightly point to recent elections as evidence for her claim that Americans must not be as pro-life as they think themselves to be.
The elections do seem to demonstrate that the pro-life convictions of many Americans are not well grounded or considered. While the pro-life movement can take real hope from this new headline, there is clearly much ground yet to be won. Americans may be squeamish about abortion and, thanks to modern ultrasound technology, they have a genuine concern for the unborn child, but this has not yet translated into a firm and convictional determination to bring the scourge of abortion on demand to an end.
The pro-choice movement can point to the election of President Obama and many other pro-choice candidates, but the movement must be biting its nails over the trend evident in this new poll and similar surveys. The most ominous trend for the pro-choice movement is the increasingly pro-life character of younger Americans. As some observers have pointed out, a generation that can see ultrasound images of themselves in their own baby books tends to see abortion for what it is — the killing of a child.
Here is the great quandary for the pro-choice movement: More than 35 years after Roe v. Wade, they find that abortion is anything but the “settled issue” that some abortion proponents were certain would be the fate of the abortion question soon after 1973. To the contrary, the pro-choice movement is losing ground, not gaining. The frustration of pro-choice leaders is starting to show. They have little reason to be confident.
Abortion remains the greatest scandal confronting the American conscience. Those of us who yearn for America to return to its senses on this issue can take hope, even as we have much to do. Rebuilding a Culture of Life is no easy or quick task. This is one of the greatest civilizational challenges faced by this generation.
America has an unsettled conscience about abortion. We should be thankful for this fact, but not satisfied. An unsettled conscience is far better than a conscience settled on the killing of unborn children.
R. Albert Mohler Jr.
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