Electoral Politics and Abortion

Electoral Politics and Abortion

Most progressives would say the abortion debate is intractable because it reflects the huge gap between conservative Christian and secular humanist values. I’d like to offer another theory, one not incompatible with this one, but a supplement to it. The abortion debate is intractable at this time because the two major political parties in the United States exploit this issue to pursue electoral majorities.

Republicans use the abortion issue to forge coalitions with right-wing and fundamentalist Christian voters. Democrats use it to attract women voters. Neither party will risk modifying its rigid position for fear of alienating the constituencies that the abortion issue has helped attract. Opinion surveys over the past thirty years, however, indicate that the majority of Americans support some abortions as well as some restrictions. Most voters, that is, fall between the positions represented by those who refuse to recognize any problems with the legal status quo and those who want to change it radically. According to a national poll in 2000,

overall support for the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision seems to be softening as Americans adopt a more nuanced view of the circumstances under which abortions should be allowed . . . .Despite the increasing level of discomfort with the high court’s ruling-43% of current survey respondents express support for Roe, compared with 56% in 1991-the poll shows continued opposition to a constitutional ban on abortion . . . Nearly two-thirds of respondents say abortions should be illegal after the first three months of pregnancy. While 85% support abortion when a woman’s physical health is at risk, the level of support drops to 54% when only her emotional health is at stake. And 66% say they support abortion when the fetus is at risk of an abnormality.Alissa J. Rubin, “Americans Narrowing Support for Abortions,” Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2000. For a discussion of poll data from thirty years ago, see Judith Blake, “The Abortion Decisions: Judicial Review and Public Opinion,” in Abortion : New Directions for Policy Studies, ed. Edward Manier, William Lu, and David Solomon, (University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), pp. 51-82. Clyde Wilcox and Julia Riches argue that public attitudes on abortion are morally nuanced and take into account the gestational age of the fetus and the circumstances of the woman. See, “Pills in the Public’s Mind: RU486 and the Framing of the Abortion Issue” (Women & Politics 24:3, 2003).

In short, the large majority of voters support the right to choose in the first third of pregnancy and, after that, want access restricted to some cases of hardship, though no one would get this impression from ...