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 ...

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