Overturning Roe will not suddenly make abortion illegal throughout the country. Instead, it will simply return the abortion question to the political process. That means public opinion, which Roe has peremptorily suppressed for almost 50 years, will rule the roost. And it is decidedly mixed.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman has compiled an indispensable guide to Americans’ attitudes toward abortion since Roe was decided in 1973. It shows that roughly half of the country believes having an abortion is morally wrong, similar to the share of people who say they are pro-life vs. pro-choice. But it also shows that between 61 and 68 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, according to polls conducted within the past year by the Pew Research Center, Quinnipiac University and the Public Religion Research Institute. Indeed, roughly half of the country thinks that a woman should be able to have an abortion for any reason, including if she doesn’t think she can afford another child or simply doesn’t want more children.
That doesn’t mean that the views of abortion rights activists are uniformly accepted. While clear majorities favor abortion rights in the first trimester of pregnancy, majorities oppose abortion in the second trimester and roughly 80 percent oppose it in the third trimester. Only 43 percent favored a national law protecting abortion rights in a September Quinnipiac poll; 41 percent said abortion should be left to the states while 11 percent favored a national law to restrict abortion access. Clearly, the closer an unborn child is to birth, the more the public supports that child’s right to life.
These data suggest a few things for the pro-life movement: First, it should expect an enormous campaign by abortion rights advocates to mobilize the pro-choice majority that favors legal abortion in the first trimester. While evidence suggests that pro-life voters have tended to make abortion more of a priority in their voting than in previous elections, abortion rights advocates will try to change that in 2022 if Roe is overturned. Pro-lifers should be prepared for that onslaught, both to mobilize their own side and to minimize the other side’s impact. Angry or violent confrontations on college campuses or in front of abortion providers probably would not do the cause much good.
counterpointPro-lifers, RIP. The pro-death movement is born.
Pro-life forces should also resist any attempt to federalize abortion law for the foreseeable future. Since half of all Democratic voters believe there should be no restrictions on abortion at all, any pro-life federal bill will be filibustered in the Senate. Democrats would certainly seek to codify Roe, and any federal compromise would likely at least enshrine first trimester abortions into federal law, eliminating the ability of conservative states to enact their own laws. Should a federal law pass, it would likely stand for many decades, much like the Missouri Compromise settled the slavery question for more than 30 years despite growing abolitionist sentiment.
Pro-lifers must understand Abraham Lincoln’s famous dictum that “public sentiment is everything.” “With public sentiment,” the Great Emancipator said, “nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” Right now, public sentiment favors unrestricted abortion in the first trimester, the period in which roughly 92 percent of all abortions in the United States are performed. Until that sentiment changes, pro-lifers will not be able to make significant changes to American abortion law even with Roe out of the way.
The good news for the pro-life movement is that public opinion can change relatively quickly. In 1996, only 27 percent of Americans favored same-sex marriage. That share increased to roughly 60 percent by 2015 when the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage to be a constitutional right and sits at 70 percent today. Only 4 percent of Americans favored interracial marriage in 1958; today, 94 percent do.
Pro-lifers can change public opinion by focusing on the scientific facts. It’s undisputed that a fertilized egg has its own DNA distinct from its mother. Many eggs don’t implant and others miscarry, but those that survive develop on a predictable, steady course. The fertilized egg is programmed from conception to expand and grow into a fetus and then into an infant. People can grasp the innate humanity of even this tiny being, but they must hear the facts of life in a patient and compassionate way.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, overturning Roe is neither the end nor the beginning of the end; it is merely the end of the beginning. If pro-lifers keep their eyes on the prize, the march toward the protection of life can finally start in earnest.