Public opinion about abortion shows little change in the 40 years since the Roe v. Wade decision
By: Michael Collins, Scripps Howard News Service
12:42 PM, Jan 22, 2013
WASHINGTON - Americans have agonized, prayed, fought and even killed each other over abortion ever since the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision establishing a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy.
But public opinion on abortion has changed little since that landmark ruling was handed down 40 years ago today.
In 1975, just two years after the decision, 21 percent of Americans polled by Gallup said abortion should be legal under any circumstance, 54 percent said it should be legal under certain circumstances and 22 percent said it should be illegal in all cases.
When the same question was asked last year, the results showed no significant shift in either direction. Twenty-five percent said abortion should be legal under any circumstance, 52 percent said it should be legal under certain circumstances and 20 percent said it should be illegal in all cases.
Abortion has never been a black and white issue for many Americans, experts say, which is reflected in the fact that roughly half of Americans think it should be legal with some restrictions. Yet for many others, opinions about abortion are formed by deeply held beliefs about life and death.
"Because abortion is legal with restrictions doesn't mean that people's views as to whether it's terminating a life have changed," said Neal Devins, professor of law and director of the Institute of Bill of Rights Law at the College of William and Mary.
Abortion is different from same-sex marriage – another divisive social issue, but one in which public opinion has shifted so dramatically over the past decade that a majority of Americans now favor allowing gay couples to legally wed, said David J. Garrow, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
"The fetus as a prospective child makes this much more difficult (for many Americans) than gay equality," said Garrow, who has written a history of the legal struggles for reproductive rights in the United States.
"American society today is much more pro-child and child-oriented than Americans were 40 or 42 or 44 years ago," Garrow said. "And so it is because of children just being more appreciated, I think the fetus has more stature, more status, than it did in 1970 or 1973."
Public opinion about abortion may not have changed dramatically since Roe v. Wade, but the decision has had a profound impact in other ways.
Roe v. Wade made abortions safer, Devins said, but didn't really change the rate at which women were getting the procedures. The 7-2 decision also transformed the American judiciary by making the courts a lightning rod and leading to political ideology playing a far greater role in judicial appointments and confirmations.
But one of the decision's biggest legacies is a fundamental shift in how women and their role in society are viewed, said Beth Burkstrand-Reid, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law.
"It was a fundamental shift in the statement of whether or not we trusted women to make decisions this important – not just about their bodies, but about important decisions in general," said Burkstrand-Reid, who specializes in reproductive health.
The impact of that "was really earth shattering – I don't think you can over-estimate that," Burkstrand-Reid said. "Not all women want to have kids at every point in their life, and not all women are able physically, medically or financially to do it. Roe made us look at how we make families, how we form families and how women fit into that."
While opponents have been successful in getting states to greatly restrict access to abortion providers, legal experts say it's doubtful that Roe v. Wade will be overturned anytime soon – if ever.
"I think Roe will be with us forever," Garrow said.
Roe v. Wade may not be overturned by the courts, Burkstrand-Reid said, but there is a danger that in some parts of the country abortion will be regulated of business as states keep coming up with new ways to restrict a woman's access to the procedure.
"The law might be there," she said, "but the access will not be. I don't think we have to overturn Roe v. Wade to overturn Roe v. Wade."