In the February 12, 1971 issue of Science, acclaimed sociologist Judith Blake published an article on American attitudes toward abortion, based on a decade of public-opinion surveys. Blake was the chairman of the department of Demography at UC Berkeley — an outpost for population-control specialists — and no friend to the nascent pro-life movement. Even so, Blake couldn’t deny the obvious: the vast majority of Americans opposed the repeal of state abortion laws. “If the Supreme Court became progressively involved in ruling on the constitutionality of state legislation concerning abortion,” Blake concluded, any Court decision favoring elective abortion “would not accord with the view of over 80 percent of the population.”
Blake’s findings likely did not surprise her audience. In the early 1970s, the “abortion repeal” movement was about as politically marginal as the Black Panthers or the Chicago Eight. No state had repealed its legal protections for “unborn infants” (the term George McGovern used to describe pre-natal human lives). When the Democratic Party at its 1972 convention voted on an abortion-repeal plank, the proposal failed 1,101 to 1,547. In early 1973, New York representative Bella Abzug’s legislation to nullify state anti-abortion laws had languished in Congress for eleven months, attracting no more than 20 sponsors.
It’s true that abortion liberalization laws had gained ground at the time. Four states had struck down most of their abortion restrictions, while 13 others had scrapped some of theirs. But by 1973, such reform efforts had stalled. Voters in Michigan and North Dakota in 1972 had rejected by overwhelming margins measures that would have legalized abortion up to the 20th week of pregnancy. And 33 states had not changed their laws one bit, to the consternation of Judith Blake, who said that they constituted “some of the more repressive of our pronatalist policies.”
Then on the morning of Monday, January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court announced its rulings in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. The conventional wisdom about Roe and Doe is that they reformed the nation’s anti-abortion laws: in the first trimester, states could not restrict the procedure; in the second trimester, states could restrict but not ban it; and in the third trimester, states could ban abortion provided they make an exception for maternal health. In truth, the court’s decisions in Roe and Doe effectively repealed the nation’s anti-abortion laws.
The first sign that the decisions represented abortion repeal rather than reform was the reaction from abortion advocates. The founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, Lawrence Lader, said that the decisions “went beyond what anyone had predicted,” while its executive director, Lee Giddings, wrote that they represented “a staggering victory.” The second was Roe’s timeline: only four states had permitted abortion for any reason during the first trimester, now it was legal in all 50. And the third was the fine print: Doe defined the health exception in the broadest way possible, as encompassing “all factors — physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age — relevant to the well-being of the patient.”
In other words, abortion became legal for virtually any reason throughout almost the entire pregnancy. The implications were staggering indeed. The practical implication was that the 95 percent of women who could not obtain legal abortions before Roe now could do so.
Starting in high school, Americans debate over whether abortion should be legal in the “hard cases” (i.e., rape, incest, fetal abnormality, life of the mother, and health). The debates are illuminating, but have little correspondence to reality. The vast majority of women resort to abortion in the “easy cases” (financial hardship, relationship problems, etc.).
Consider an Alan Guttmacher Institute study from 2005 on why most American women decide to abort. “While a small proportion of women who have abortions do so because of health concerns or fetal anomalies,” the report stated, “the large majority chooses termination in response to an unintended pregnancy.” It went on:
Among the structured survey respondents, the two most common reasons were “having a baby would dramatically change my life” and “I can’t afford a baby now” (cited by 74 percent and 73 percent, respectively). A large proportion cited relationship problems or a desire to avoid single motherhood (48 percent).
All told, over 90 percent* of the 1.2 and 1.3 million abortions performed annually are for economic and social reasons.
Roe and Doe’s standards were, and are, far to the left of the American people; the public has never endorsed abortion repeal — not in the 1970s, and not today.
Take polls that ask whether abortion should be legal in cases in which parents believe they cannot afford another child. According to Gallup, 61 percent of respondents opposed abortion for those reasons in 2003. Or take polls that ask whether a woman should be able to get an abortion if she and her partner do not want another child, the couple does not want to marry, or a pregnancy would interfere with a woman’s career. According to an in-depth Gallup review of polls in 2002, the average rate of support for legal abortion for those reasons was 39, 35, 29, and 25 percent, respectively.
This public rate of disapproval is significant. It means that, as conservatives sometimes point out, the vast majority of the public opposes most of the abortions that Roe and Doe sanction.
Judith Blake saw this development coming decades ago. She knew that the public would never support the abortion standards that she and others endorsed. That’s why she looked for the highest court in the land to settle the matter:
This popular ambivalence, plus the cumbersomeness of state-by-state changes in abortion laws, suggests that a Supreme Court ruling concerning the constitutionality of existing state restrictions is the only road to rapid change in the grounds for abortion.
– Mark Stricherz, a writer for GetReligion.org and InsideCatholic.com, is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party.
* Editor’s Note: This figure has been corrected from the original version.