The Washington Post

Abortion Politics: winning the middle


Spectators observe from the gallery of the House chamber during a floor debate on abortion at the General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, July 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) Spectators observe from the gallery of the House chamber during a floor debate on abortion at the General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, July 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

In state legislatures across the country, the battle over abortion rights is raging once again.

But what neither side of the abortion debate seems to want to acknowledge is that there is a middle ground on the issue. The problem for both of them: The middle is where you can find the vast majority of Americans, who see the abortion issue not as a battle, but as a balance.

Public opinion on the issue, as complicated as it is, is remarkably steady — as a new report by the General Social Survey, a project of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, shows.

Tom W. Smith, director of the survey, has studied public opinion on abortion since 1972, the year before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

His research suggests that only 7 percent of the public rejects abortion under any circumstances. About 31 percent think it should be available to whoever wants one. And the vast majority — nearly 62 percent — supports abortion in some circumstances, while opposing it in others.

“Most people look at it as a conflict of interests,” Smith said. “They believe you have to balance those rights.”

More than any other issue, abortion is one where the advantage goes to the side that is better at defining the question.

A big question to watch right now is the one over whether abortion clinics should operate under the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers — a question that is playing out in Austin and in other state capitals across the country.

Will abortion opponents succeed in convincing people that these requirements are reasonable safeguards for the health of the women who seek abortions? Or will abortion-rights advocates win their argument that this is simply a subterfuge to drive most clinics out of existence? My hunch is that it is the latter.

When those who support abortion rights frame their argument in a way that gets people to imagine themselves in the individual situations that bring women to the lobby of an abortion clinic, they are more likely to get the upperhand.

For instance, waiting periods have long been advocated by abortion foes. But most people probably don’t see the benefit — and it doesn’t take much of a stretch to understand the drawbacks.

“It sounds good until you think about it,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. “Waiting periods sound good until you think about what that does to women in rural areas, or if you are juggling two jobs.”

Where the abortion rights side appears nearly certain to lose is on the question of whether it is reasonable for a state to put some limits on the procedure in the latter stages of pregnancy.

Back in 1995, a debate was raging over a relatively little-used procedure the abortion opponents had dubbed “partial-birth abortion.” It accounted for only a miniscule percentage of the 1.5 million abortions that were happening every year in this country, and yet it had become the rallying cry in what abortion foes had a declared a “summer of life.”

The reason had less to do with winning the war over abortion — after all, a series of court decisions had made it clear that Roe v. Wade was going to stand — than it did with changing the terms of engagement.

As Ralph Reed, then the director of the Christian Coalition, told me at the time: “Anytime we can talk about the child, we win. Anytime we get off the child and start talking about technical issues or constitutional issues, we lose.”

And it is not just a question of semantics or tactics. Science and technology have probably done more to promote the “personhood” of the fetus than anything we’ve seen in the political arena.

In 2011, Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice, wrote in The Washington Post:  “We can no longer pretend the fetus is invisible. We can no longer seek to banish the state from our lives, but rather need to engage its power to improve women’s lives. We must end the fiction that an abortion at 26 weeks is no different from one at six weeks.”

That distinction is something that the other side should understand as well.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.

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