It seems that Americans want to oppose abortion and yet keep it legal. The public debate on this subject has reached an impasse, yet the issue continues to be debated (Kavanaugh 1997). While there is little change in public opinion, it does not mean that the abortion issue is going to lessen in intensity any time soon. There are many reasons for this, but the abortion issue is not going to recede in intensity any time in the near future. While there are many reasons for this, the most important might be 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 Jar 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 seventy-seven 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 sixty percent in the middle–see legalized abortion as an evil, they see it as ‘necessary.’ (Caldwell 1999).
Why then, if sixty percent of Americans see abortion as evil, is it thought to be necessary? Less than thirty percent believe abortion is acceptable in the first three months of pregnancy if the pregnancy would require a teenager to drop out of school. So the reasoning is not because American sees abortion as a way to secure equal opportunities for women. It is also seen that less than twenty percent support abortion in the first three months of pregnancy if the pregnancy would interrupt a woman’s career. Studies show there are many Americans that 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. One of these myths is that 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 one hundred thousand illegal abortions occurred annually in the 1960s, only five thousand abortions were performed in 1968, the first full year of legalization (Caldwell 1999).
The vast majority of abortions today are for reasons of lifestyle. Only about 14,000 women per year get abortions because of rape, incest, or to save their own lives. Of the other 1,286,000, three-fourths say a baby would interfere with work, school, or other responsibilities; two-thirds say they cannot afford a child; one-half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their male partner, according to the Guttmacher Institute,” (Kelly 1999).
There are two main factions in the abortion controversy, the pro-choice people and those who are pro-life. Most churches are in support of the right-to-life conflict, and even go so far as to have violent rallies in support of outlawing abortion. On the other hand, there are the pro-choice people who believe everyone has the right to make their own choices about their bodies and should be able to get an abortion by a licensed physician whenever it is necessary.
The National Government could step in and put an end to all of the arguments once and for all simply by legalizing abortion and allowing women to terminate a pregnancy if they so choose. The government, it seems, could issue a constitutional amendment reversing the Roe decision. Richard McCormick (1981, pp 490) described the American bishops’ response to the 1973 Roe decision as “the strongest, and in this sense, most radical episcopal statement I have ever encountered.” The bishops denounced the decision as “entirely contrary to the fundamental principles of morality” and called for a constitutional amendment reversing Roe. Bernardin’s 1983 address was, paradoxically, both more restrained and more radical than the bishops’ initial Roe reaction: more restrained because Bernardin explicitly sought dialogue which meant an open-endedness about final outcomes; more radical in that he linked opposing abortion with the active promotion of non-violence and an expanding notion of human dignity (Kelly 1999).
The political philosophic justification for rights that accrue to moral beings interacts with the social practices that prompt the necessity for rights–there is a dialectical relationship between theories of rights and practices of claims of rights that can be understood through the concept of praxis. Praxis is being used here in the sense Elizabeth Schneider uses it, as “the active role of consciousness and subjectivity in shaping both theory and practice and the dynamic interrelationship that results” (Porter 1994).
Needless to say, most men and women who undertake abortions do not do so lightly or without anguish. Moreover, it should be self-evident that the judgment of an action is not a judgment upon the motivation or sincerity of the one who acts.
But mentioning these things does not say enough. We have to name what has been, until recently, unmentionable. We are a country that, in the name of “autonomy” and boundless choice, is unwilling to protect our youngest members against infanticide.
Abortion turns out to be an indispensable part of the normal middle-American toolkit. If Republicans like Governor Bush are giving up on the issue, it’s because they’ve figured out that, even if Republicans win on abortion, they lose. The most they could hope to achieve is to shake middle-class life to its foundations in the name of values that, at the end of the day, neither they nor the middle class actually holds (Caldwell 1999).
It’s not a matter of monolithic, time-honored religion versus itty-bitty, flighty lifestyle. It’s religion–marginal vestige, subculture, private matter–versus lifestyle–the engine, the symbol, the central organizing principle of the most powerful nation in the history of mankind. The failure of the Southern Baptist Convention’s call for a boycott of Disney gives you an indication of which worldview wins when they clash head-on (Forsythe 1999).
Pro-lifers have always thought that, by focusing on the misgivings, antiabortion Republicans can win over Middle America. They can’t. That middle two-thirds is not up for grabs, because the misgivings are largely bogus. Whether or not Bush’s is a principled stand, it is a pragmatic one. Because the main thing Bush is “realistic enough to know” is that a pro-life regime is not really something Americans want–it’s just something they feel they ought to want (Forsythe 1999).