Are Americans Really Anti-Abortion?

This headline posed a question that caught my attention: Is the Electorate Tilting "Pro-Life?" No surprise that this piece on the American Prospect blog critiques the headlines, which are potentially misleading. Pew came out with news of a tilt toward more conservative views in a recent survey about both guns and abortion. So did Gallup, with what Dana Goldstein, author of the American Prospect blog piece, called a "cat-nip" headline, More Americans "Pro-Life" than "Pro-Choice" for the First Time.

The numbers are–have been for some years–very close, which is why they call abortion a wedge issue. Depending how you pose the question, depending what age bracket you are looking at, the numbers do shift around. Nate Silver on FiveThirtyEight took the numbers and put them into his statistical, magical, media-savvy context. His analysis is that the numbers are pretty steady. A recent event, like the birth of Sarah and Todd Palin's baby, Trig, could affect polls taken when that event (the baby has Down syndrome and she discussed her consideration of abortion given that information, and rejecting the idea of terminating that pregnancy), according to Silver. Could the trend be tilting slightly against abortion rights longer term? Maybe, he says. But probably not. Silver: "In fact, the remarkable thing about abortion is precisely how steady public opinion has been on it for many, many years."

How timely that President Obama giving the commencement address at Notre Dame, one of the country's premier Catholic universities, set off protests, and more so, how admirable that he made remarks about abortion directly in his speech. He called for "open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words," noting the schism surrounding the issue in this country is deep, yet urging that Americans search for "common ground." Here's an excerpt: "I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away," he said. "At some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."

As a longtime reproductive rights organizer, I can pretty much recite a "common ground" speech without thinking about the specific words, because I've spent plenty of time in debates about the issue. I think, in a way, it's better to forgo theoretical debates. For me, personal and political solidified as one through abortion. One of the reasons abortion personally helped to define me as a feminist is because–at seventeen–I got pregnant, the spring before heading to college (and to my life!). I was launching myself and it was very clear to me–pit-of-the-stomach clear–that I could not grow up in the ways I hoped to if I were to have a baby before truly forging my adult identity. And more so, that the burden–the physical burden, the ultimate responsbility that could not be walked away from (not at all saying a man would necessarily walk away from responsibility, just that physically he could)–was mine alone. That reality, that physical reality, hit home. It was starkly obvious that without the right to make that decision–whether to continue a pregnancy or end a pregnancy–I–any female–did not enjoy a similar freedom as a man, as men, did. I'm so grateful that in 1981 I could make that choice. What's more, there was nearly unfettered access to abortion in those good, old days (another post, I'll write more about access; this link is to one article about access). Because I was under eighteen, the procedure was publicly funded. The world has become less open-minded about abortion, I would agree, with that sentiment. Recently, actress Bea Arthur died. That her television character, Maude–a middle-aged, smart, strong-willed feminist–had an abortion in November, 1972, was considered groundbreaking at the time (first in prime time television). This would not happen now to a beloved sitcom character, just for a start. Even still, I do believe the only way to sway opinion is by keeping women's voices–their lives, their realities–firmly in people's minds. Every time the right trips up, or almost trips up, about abortion, it's because they express their deeper-held convictions than even "life" that their own daughters do deserve agency over their bodies and lives. Sarah Palin took for granted that her daughter had the choice, because she described her daughter as making the decision (about whether to continue her pregnancy while still in high school) herself. And Sarah Palin's only the latest in a string of opponents to abortion to reveal that assumption. I think that's why, in truth, we are not–and I hope never will be–an anti-abortion nation.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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