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What do Americans think about abortion law? It's complicated

Photo by Reed Naliboff on Unsplash

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in the Dobbs decision last month, the court returned regulation of abortion to the states. The decision was controversial, and much of the debate has centered around extreme circumstances, and the effects of some of the most strict state laws.

One case made national headlines, and drew the attention of President Joe Biden, after the Columbus Dispatch reported that an Ohio 10-year-old became pregnant after she was raped, and was subsequently taken to Indiana for an abortion.

Ohio’s abortion law bans abortion after a child’s heartbeat can be detected - at about six weeks of gestation - with exceptions only for cases where the life of the mother is in danger or her health is severely threatened.

While much discussion has centered around whether abortions would be legal in cases of rape or incest, 1987 and 2004 surveys conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, the research wing of Planned Parenthood, found that fewer than 1.5% of abortions were reportedly related to rape or incest.

Many state abortion restrictions include exceptions for cases in which the pregnancy was conceived through rape or incest, while some pro-lifers argue against those exceptions, saying that the unborn child’s right to life is not changed by the circumstances of its conception.

What do most Americans think? It’s hard to tell. Polling data shows that on morally tough questions like abortion exceptions, respondents often give inconsistent answers, making it difficult to get a clear picture of American perspectives — if there is one to be had.

In its 2020 survey, the Cooperative Election Study asked more than 60,000 people about their views on abortion.

Only 16 percent of respondents said they supported making abortion illegal in all circumstances.

That group was more religious than the population of respondents as a whole. Forty-six percent of those who said abortion should always be illegal reported going to church at least once a week, which was twice the rate of respondents as a whole. They were slightly more likely than average to be Catholic, and more than half described themselves as “born again,”  compared to 27 percent of all CES respondents.

Fifty-eight percent of CES respondents said that abortion should only be permitted in case of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life was in danger - a notion that is not elaborated when CES surveys are conducted, even while people likely interpret it in a variety of ways.

Of the 16 percent of respondents who said they supported making abortion illegal in all circumstances, three-quarters said they would also support a ban on abortion that included exceptions for rape, incest, and to save the life of a woman. But the remaining quarter of those 16 percent would oppose a ban if it included those exceptions.

Of the 58 percent of respondents who said that abortion should only be permitted in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother was in danger, more than three-quarters said they did not support making abortion illegal in all circumstances.

According to Guttmacher, prohibiting abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, or to support the life of the mother might mean reducing abortions by more than 85%.

The CES also asked respondents about whether they would support banning all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.

Late-term abortion bans have had some political success, but they pertain only to a small percentage of abortions; according to the CDC, only one percent of abortions occur after 20 weeks.

Fifty-six percent of CES respondents supported banning all abortions after 20 weeks, slightly fewer than the 58 percent who said all abortion should be prohibited except in cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother.

Fourteen percent of respondents said abortion should be banned after 20 weeks, but also said they did not support the more restrictive policy of prohibiting abortion except for rape, incest, or when the woman’s life was in danger.

Sixteen percent of respondents said both that abortion should be permitted only in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger, and also that they opposed  prohibiting all abortions after the 20th week.

Those respondents, who would seem to want to ban most abortion, but would not support a 20-week ban, raise questions.

Did they regard the 20-week ban as too permissive to merit support? Did they oppose a 20-week ban because the question did not mention exceptions? Were they confused by the questions? It’s impossible to tell from the data.

The CES data suggests certain challenges that will face the pro-life movement as it seeks to protect life at the state level after Dobbs.

For many of those most devoted to the pro-life movement, rape and incest exception in law don’t make much sense — pro-life advocates often argue that the circumstances under which a child is conceived do not affect his or her human dignity and innate right to life.

Rape or incest is a profound, violent, and traumatic injustice agains the mother, but the child conceived in such a situation has a human dignity separate from that crime, pro-life advocates say.

Pro-abortion advocates have picked up on that reasoning. Some argue out that if politicians write exceptions for rape or incest into abortion laws, they do not appear to really believe that a life is at stake.

But typical voters don’t resemble the most committed advocates, on either side. Only 16 percent of respondents in the CES survey supported making abortion illegal in all circumstances. But 73 percent of respondents supported at least one of the three proposed restrictions on abortion.

The data suggests that while few people support a total ban on abortions, and few are opposed to all restrictions, the majority of voters inhabit a mushy middle ground: opposed to an absolute ban on abortion but willing to support restrictions on its practice.

In difficult circumstances, such as rape, many respondents seem to indicate they see abortion as justifiable, even when they seem to oppose abortion generally.

In the months to come, those responsible for crafting state legislation on abortion face difficult decisions — whether to push for laws they see as morally consistent, which might prove sufficiently unpopular to be passed, or to offer provisions they see as morally incoherent, but politically possible.

In the wake of Dobbs, bishops have argued that the Church’s long term goal must be to make abortion unthinkable, not merely illegal. But the law is often recognized as a powerful teacher.

It will be the task of those writing laws to decide whether that teaching - and the lives which depend upon such regulations - will be better served by advocacy for more controversial laws, like banning virtually all abortions, or for less philosophically coherent laws which would ban the vast majority of abortions.

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