The 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade is, among many other things, an opportunity for perhaps the 4,000th national poll on the issue. Some will be inclined to tune out this new assessment of the sentiments of the American people on an issue that refuses to go away. They should not, of course, because the 1973 abortion decision represented not merely a judicial attempt to resolve a social concern for all time, but the beginning of a “tempting,” as the late Robert Bork rightly put it, of Americans to put their deepest differences in the hands of unelected tribunals.
We cannot escape responsibility so easily. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll, released on Wednesday of this week, contains at least one finding that is actually shocking (even to people used to watching Jay Leno’s street interviews with less-than-learned passersby). After an election in which one rationale for abortion (rape) and an alleged “war on women” dominated the media and helped secure a seemingly improbable reelection, only 44 percent of respondents under the age of 30 knew that Roe v. Wade had to do with abortion. Overall, only 62 percent of American adults surveyed could identify the issue at stake in the Roe rulings.
This fact fuels doubt about the remainder of the poll’s findings, particularly its key question whether or not the abortion rulings should be “overturned.” As my colleague Robert Morrison likes to point out, Americans are a peaceable (if heavily armed) sort and don’t generally like the ring of words such as “overturning” and “protesting.” Overturning is what we do to barroom stools in brawls. But Pew went one step further, at least in its primary question on Roe, and talked about “completely” overturning the ruling. What might that mean? That split turns out to be 63 percent against the complete overturning of Roe and 29 percent for. A number such as this is hard to gauge when as many as four in ten respondents did not know the topic of Roe and others almost certainly did not know the wide scope of the ruling or that reversing it would probably mean returning the matter to state and federal deliberative bodies (Pew did inform all respondents who did not know the topic of Roe with a description, but a somewhat inaccurate one).
To this day, the in-depth Gallup poll commissioned by Americans United for Life in 1991, “Abortion and Moral Beliefs,” remains the fullest rendering of popular views about abortion and reaction to the legislative aims of each side in the debate. The poll examined precisely how accurate those views were regarding the status of the law and tested a long series of propositions about when abortion is morally justified and legally supportable. It concluded that most Americans do not believe that there is justification for abortions in most of the cases where it actually occurs; after incidents of rape and incest, the life of the mother, and serious abnormality in the baby, Americans would just as soon limit the procedure. It would be interesting to commission a similar poll today to see whether those views have shifted and to what degree.
On the recurring theme of intensity, there is good news for pro-lifers in general, but a strong reminder that there are different types, or at least episodes, of intensity. Among those who favor overturning Roe, 74 percent believe that abortion is a critical issue or “one among many important issues” facing the country. Among those who do not favor overturning it, only 31 percent believe abortion is a critical issue or one of many important ones. The split is even more dramatic between the subset which sees it as “a critical issue” — 38 percent of those who favor overturning Roe see the issue as critical, and only 9 percent of Roe supporters see abortion as critical.
Democrats, however, continue to hold an edge over Republicans — 41 to 36 percent — regarding “which party can do a better job of representing your views on abortion.” That may be close to parity, but the split early last year was 47 to 31 in favor of the Democrats. Did the Democrats just peak at the right time last year with a superior media campaign and a supermajority of allies in the broadcast industry? Are there ways in which the party’s disappearing moderation on abortion, evident in primetime speeches in Charlotte and soon to be amplified with the implementation of Obamacare, will undo what its “war on women” rhetoric accomplished in 2012?
Pro-life intensity is a valuable asset but, uncoupled from more persuasive arguments, more powerful communications, and better policy solutions, especially on health care, it can easily exhaust itself churning against an implacable foe and an underinformed public. The Pew Forum poll shows that there are many opportunities and much work ahead for pro-lifers. Forty years on, however, Roe is nowhere near becoming the venerable “landmark” ruling its champions believe it would be, and that is no small accomplishment.
— Charles A. “Chuck” Donovan is the president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.