The Surprising New Normal in the Abortion Debate

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There is a new normal in the abortion debate because what it means to be “pro-choice” in America has changed. It is a change likely to be missed in the reporting on this week’s annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. But it is a change that could be one of the biggest surprises in an already-surprising presidential-election cycle.  

Each year about this time breathless headlines announce that the “pro-life” or “pro-choice” label is preferred by a narrow majority of Americans, yet it remains a more or less 50–50 proposition. In other words, the message is that America remains “a house divided” unable or unwilling to change the status quo.

But this narrative hides the reality that the decades-long debate over abortion actually has achieved a solid consensus.

The idea that the “pro-choice” label represents a monolithic lobby made up of half of all Americans favoring an unrestricted right to abortion is simply not true. Instead, there is a new normal favoring substantial restrictions on abortion — and that consensus is made possible because of the agreement of a majority of Americans who call themselves “pro-choice.”

Despite the rhetoric of some in politics and the media, a substantial majority of men and women — including those who say they are “pro-choice” — consistently support increasing restrictions on abortion.

Those who say they are “pro-life” reliably support abortion restrictions in overwhelming numbers.

But it would likely shock most Washington pundits that the majority of those who say they are pro-choice also support such restrictions. And yet, surveys conducted by Marist, one of the country’s top polling groups, show that this is exactly the case.

Consider the data from the most recent Marist poll on the issue: Eight in ten Americans (81 percent) would restrict abortion to, at most, the first three months of pregnancy. This includes 66 percent of those who identify as pro-choice.

About six in ten Americans, and about the same number of pro-choice adherents, would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. More than two-thirds of Americans (68 percent), and a majority of those who call themselves pro-choice (51 percent), would ban taxpayer funding of abortion.

Politically, “pro-choice” has come to mean supporting abortion rights throughout pregnancy and opposing all restrictions. But that’s not the way the average person thinks when he says he is pro-choice.

The idea that we should abort a seven-pound baby the day before its due date is just out of step with the vast majority of Americans.

The idea that we should abort a seven-pound baby the day before its due date is, while political dogma in some quarters, just out of step with the vast majority of Americans. And it’s out of step with the vast majority of pro-choice Americans too — about eight in ten of them reject this extreme position.

In fact, about a quarter of those who call themselves pro-choice (26 percent) support what is commonly seen as a strongly pro-life position: They would limit abortion to cases only of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother. In other words, those who identify as pro-choice are more likely to share the position of those who identify as pro-life than they are to share the position of the abortion-rights lobby and its defenders in politics and the media.

Given these numbers, it should be no surprise then that there has been such an increase of proposed legislation at the state and federal level to restrict the nearly unrestricted abortion access established by Roe v. Wade more than four decades ago.

Such legislation isn’t the imposition of the will of one half of Americans on the other half. It is, instead, most often a reflection of an overwhelming consensus made possible by a majority of those who say they are “pro-choice.”

No wonder that more than three-quarters of Americans (77 percent) say that laws can protect both a mother and her unborn child, and that more than seven in ten who say they are pro-choice (71 percent) agree.

Though widely unacknowledged in Washington and by the national media, unity — not division — is the new normal for the abortion debate in America.

Forty-three years after Roe v. Wade, the American people have reached a consensus on an issue the pundits have told us is “unsolvable.” The Marist poll, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, has been conducted on this issue for nearly a decade, and it has shown a remarkably consistent agreement of about eight in ten Americans in favor of significant abortion restrictions.

It is time for a new discussion on abortion, one not based on labels, but on the real views of the American people. It is time to talk about this issue as it is and to craft restrictions that the vast majority of us agree on, rather than trying to keep in place a legal regime the American people never asked for, and clearly do not support.


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