Monday, May 18, 2009

The Return of the Abortion Debate

In recent days, there has been a flurry of stories surrounding the issue of abortion.

Two recent polls find the United States to be moving in a “pro-life” direction and yesterday President Obama gave the commencement address to the new graduates of Notre Dame - a catholic university - which sparked criticism from the pro-life community.

The first poll - released April 30th by the Pew Research Center - found that support for abortion in most or all cases has dropped to 46% while opposition to abortion in most or all cases has gone up to 44% of Americans.

The poll found that support for abortion rights decreased significantly among Republicans - but this may be more attributable to moderates leaving the GOP than changes in their views on abortion. But support for abortion decreased even more so among independents.

In terms of religion, Evangelicals continue to be the most opposed to abortion (with only 23% of them supporting it) while a majority of mainline Protestants were in favor. Yet support for abortion decreased 15% among mainline Protestants since August last year.

A second poll - released on Friday by Gallup - found that for the first time in the history of the poll, a majority of Americans (51%) describe themselves as “pro-life” rather than “pro-choice”.

Furthermore, the Gallup poll confirms the Pew poll’s findings on the trend in terms of political ideology.

Is America really more Pro-Life?

Nate Silver and Ed Kilgore at were quick to point out that the findings of these polls might be dubious.

Silver combined the two questions (“legal or illegal?” and “pro-life or pro-choice?”) into one graph and found that the general trend in such surveys is that America is simply becoming more opinionated about abortion - not necessarily more opposed to it.

Kilgore, meanwhile, argued that the Gallup poll failed to accurately account for the fact that the GOP is growing smaller and produced an outlier survey - one that is terribly misleading about the actual circumstances of the national opinion.

He also pointed out that most pro-life Americans are not hardliners - they will make exceptions in certain circumstances, such as a risk to the mother’s health.

In particular, GSS shows an exceptionally durable 80%-plus level of support for a "health exception," which happens to be the actual flash-point separating pro-life activists from the rest of the population. In other words, lots of "pro-life" Americans consistently, and over decades, favor an exception that pro-life activists adamantly consider a complete repudiation of the pro-life point of view.

Of course, a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Ross Douthat also points out that many pro-choice Americans are not hardliners either - in fact, two out of three Americans support restrictions on second and third trimester abortions.

Douthat also points out another interesting bit from the Pew poll - “Americans under 35, while more sympathetic to gay marriage than their parents, also tend to be slightly more anti-abortion”.

And he’s right. With the exception of senior citizens, the Millennials are the least supportive generation of abortion, as the Pew table above indicates. As Silver wrote in his post, “There are evidently an increasing number of pro-life, pro-gay marriage Americans…a position it would have been very unusual to encounter just a few years ago.”

In fact, it certainly appears that the entire abortion debate is very different than just a few years ago based on the evidence we’ve seen. The specific views vary widely from individual to individual, often for very different reasons.

But what is the impact of this in Washington?

We’ll definitely see this issue come up again as Obama finds his nominee to replace Justice Souter for the Supreme Court - but there are already palpable changes taking place in the political (rather than policy) sphere.

Yesterday on Meet the Press, DNC Chairman Tim Kaine and RNC Chairman Michael Steele faced off on the controversy surrounding Obama’s visit to Notre Dame.

No surprises there. The Democratic leader toted the party line of keeping abortions rare, safe, and legal, while the Republican leader toted the party line of the sacredness of life.

Except the interesting thing is that Kaine is pro-life, while Steele (although he describes himself as “pro-life”) said earlier this year that abortion is a woman’s personal choice.

Thus the traditional political lines are being blurred.

And that’s where Obama’s speech at Notre Dame comes in. Speaking to a full auditorium, he said

…when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do - that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.

That's when we begin to say, "Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions.

So let's work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women."

Understand - I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it - indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory - the fact is that 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.

Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.

And there in lies some of the President’s greatest attributes - inclusiveness and pragmatism. Since taking office Obama has lived by a creed to make the middle ground the higher ground.

In a complex debate with a diverse range of opinions on a sensitive issue - and arguably more complex, diverse, and sensitive than ever - Obama has touched on the essential principles of a common ground by which all Americans can agree and work together.

Perhaps it is because of a deep-founded conviction, or perhaps it is simply the shifting lines on the issue, but Obama has taken yet another controversy as an opportunity and hit a political home run.

You can watch the full commencement address here.

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