Twenty-six years after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, the public debate on abortion seems to have reached a stalemate. The issue continues to be debated in Congress and state legislatures across the country, but, year to year, there seems to be little change in public opinion.
This does not mean, however, that the abortion issue is going to recede in intensity any time soon. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is simply that "the majority of Americans morally disapprove of the majority of abortions currently performed," as University of Virginia sociologist James Hunter concludes in his path-breaking 1994 book, Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America's Culture Wars. Hunter's analysis is based on the 1991 Gallup poll "Abortion and Moral Beliefs," the most thorough survey of American attitudes toward abortion yet conducted.
The Gallup study found that 77 percent of Americans believe that abortion is at least the "taking of human life" (28 percent), if not "murder" itself (49 percent). Other polls confirm these findings. And yet, while many Americans—perhaps 60 percent in the middle—see legalized abortion as an evil, they see it as "necessary."
The Chicago Tribune aptly summarized the situation in a September 1996 editorial: "Most Americans are uncomfortable with all-or-nothing policies on abortion. They generally shy away from proposals to ban it in virtually all circumstances, but neither are they inclined to make it available on demand no matter what the circumstances. They regard it, at best, as a necessary evil."
If Middle America—as Hunter calls the 60 percent—sees abortion as an evil, why is it thought to be necessary? Although the 1991 Gallup poll did not probe this question specifically, it made clear that it is not because Middle America sees abortion as necessary to secure equal opportunities for women. For example, less than 30 percent believe abortion is acceptable in the first three months of pregnancy if the pregnancy would require a teenager to drop out of school (and the number drops below 20 percent if the abortion is beyond three months). Likewise, less than 20 percent support abortion in the first three months of pregnancy if the pregnancy would interrupt a woman's career (and that support drops to 10 percent if the abortion is after the third month).
Four "necessary" myths
Instead, many Americans, therefore, may see abortion as "necessary" to avert "the back alley." In this sense, the notion of legal abortion as a "necessary evil" is based on a series of myths widely disseminated since the 1960s. These myths captured the public mind and have yet to be rebutted.
Myth #1: One to two million illegal abortions occurred annually before legalization. In fact, the annual total in the few years before abortion on demand was no more than tens of thousands and most likely fewer. For example, in California, the most populous state where it was alleged that 100,000 illegal abortions occurred annually in the 1960s, only 5,000 abortions were performed in 1968, the first full year of legalization.
Myth #2: Thousands of women died annually from abortions before legalization. As a leader in the legalization movement, Dr. Bernard Nathanson later wrote: "How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In N.A.R.A.L. we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always '5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.' I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose that others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the 'morality' of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics?"
In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics in 1972 show that 39 women died from illegal abortion and 27 died from legal abortion.
Myth #3: Abortion law targeted women rather than abortionists before legalization. In fact, the nearly uniform policy of the states for nearly a century before 1973 was to treat the woman as the second victim of abortion.
Myth #4: Legalized abortion has been good for women. In fact, women still die from legal abortion, and the general impact on health has had many negative consequences, including the physical and psychological toll that many women bear, the epidemic of sexually transmitted disease, the general coarsening of male-female relationships over the past 30 years, the threefold increase in the repeat-abortion rate, and the increase in hospitalizations from ectopic pregnancies.
A generation of Americans educated by these myths sees little alternative to legalized abortion. It is commonly believed that prohibitions on abortion would not reduce abortion and only push thousands of women into "the back alley" where many would be killed or injured. Prohibitions would mean no fewer abortions and more women injured or killed. Wouldn't that be worse than the status quo?
Middle America's sense that abortion is a necessary evil explains a lot of things, and, by giving coherent explanation to many disparate facts and impressions, it may provide a way beyond the stalemate to—as Hunter calls for—an elevation in the content and conduct of the public debate.
First, this notion of abortion as a necessary evil explains the seemingly contradictory polls showing that a majority of Americans believe both that abortion is murder and that it should be legal. The most committed pro-life Americans see legality and morality to be inextricably intertwined and therefore view the pol ling data as contradictory. But Middle America understands "legal" versus "illegal" not in moral terms but in practical terms—criminalizing the procedure. Based on the historical myths, Middle America believes that criminalizing abortion would only aggravate a bad situation.
Second, the myth of abortion as a necessary evil also explains the power of the "choice" rhetoric. For the most committed abortion proponents, "choice" means moral autonomy. But there are less ideological meanings. According to the choice rhetoric, Americans can persuade women to make another choice, but they can't make abortion illegal, because that would mean no fewer abortions and simply push women into the back alley. This explains why Middle America will support virtually any regulation, short of making abortions illegal, that will encourage alternatives and reduce abortions. In a sense, by supporting legal regulations but not prohibitions, many Americans may believe that they are choosing "the lesser of two evils."
The rhetoric of abortion as a "necessary evil" (though not the phrase itself) is a key tactic of abortion advocates. It is roughly reflected in President Clinton's slogan that he wants abortion to be "safe, legal, and rare" and is at the heart of the President's veto of the federal partial-birth abortion bill. In the face of polls showing that 70 to 80 percent of Americans oppose the procedure, the President says that the procedure is horrible (it's an evil) but contends that "a few hundred women" every year must have the procedure (it's necessary).
Indeed, the rhetoric of abortion as a necessary evil is designed to sideline Americans' moral qualms about abortion. For example, when Congress first began to consider the bill prohibiting partial-birth abortion, abortion advocates bought a full-page advertisement in the New York Times showing a large coat hanger and the caption, "Will this be the only approved method of abortion?" The coat hanger, reinforcing the image of the back alley, remains a powerful rhetorical symbol. It reinforces the notion that there are two and only two alternatives: abortion on demand or the back alley.
Finally, the myth of abortion as a "necessary evil" also explains why 49 percent of Americans may believe that abortion is "murder" without translating this into fervent social or political mobilization. While Middle Americans may view abortion as an evil, they view it as intractable. For this reason, they view fervent campaigns to prohibit abortion as unrealistic if not counterproductive, while they are drawn to realistic alternatives and regulations. They agree that there are too many abortions and would like to see them reduced. Abortion is not a galvanizing electoral issue for Middle America, because Middle America doesn't see that much can be done about the issue legally or politically.
The future of abortion
The myth of abortion as a necessary evil has serious implications for future public debate. First, it means that abortion opponents have won the essential debate that the unborn is a human being and not mere tissue. In fact, the whole thrust of the "choice" argument admits this and seeks to sideline Americans' moral qualms by telling Americans that, even if it is a human life, the most that can be done is to persuade women not to have abortions.
Second, it means that the ideological arguments of both sides ("choice" versus "child") often miss the much more practical concerns of many Americans.
Third, it means that Americans balance the fate of the woman and the fate of the child. Although they understand the fate of the child to be fatal, they want to avoid the same result for women and believe that legalized abortion has been good generally for women.
This means that maximizing the fatal impact of abortion through, for example, graphic pictures of aborted babies is not a "silver bullet" that will transform public opinion alone. Instead, elevating the content and conduct of the public debate requires addressing both aspects—the impact on women as well as the impact on the child. Helping the public understand the impact on both, and the alternatives available, may contribute to a renewal of public dialogue that we so sorely need on this issue.
But a renewal of the public dialogue won't mean much if the people are not allowed to express the public will on this issue, as they usually do in our democratic republic. Twenty-six years ago, the Supreme Court claimed hegemony over the issue and created a nationwide rule of abortion on demand, preventing democratic debate and solutions. The public policy dictated by the Supreme Court collides with majority opinion and reflects the views of only the 20 percent who are committed to abortion on demand. Twenty-six years later, that is the main reason the pot keeps boiling.
Clarke D. Forsythe is attorney and president of Americans United for Life in Chicago.
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