Americans agree on most abortion policy; party leaders, not so much
posted at 1:35 pm on August 26, 2012 by Libby Sternberg
As we head into political convention season, here’s a news flash: neither party really represents where Americans are on the topic of abortion.
You might find this hard to understand, given the often careless reporting on the topic. Pro-life rallies are regularly ignored while any proposed abortion restriction, no matter how small, is often reported on as if it were an aberration. This gives the false impression that the majority of Americans are pro-choice absolutists. No, that would be some prominent Democrats, certainly progressives.
While the 2012 Democratic platform isn’t yet finalized, the 2008 one opposed “any and all efforts” to “undermine” Roe v. Wade. Translation: opposition to waiting periods, partial-birth abortion restrictions, parental notification laws and more.
The president himself, in fact, holds perhaps the most extreme pro-choice absolutist position. As a state senator, he opposed a “Born Alive” bill that would have spared the lives of babies who survived botched abortions.
The Republicans, of course, are regularly demonized (no exaggeration if you check out Facebook posts from pro-choice supporters) for their pro-life absolutist positions that include no abortion exceptions for victims of rape.
These party positions, by the way, have been relatively unchanged for many years now (except, as Jeff Jacoby points out, Democrats have started deleting from their abortion plank the desire that abortion be “rare”). And, as stated above, they do not represent where most Americans are on the topic.
The good news for the pro-choice absolutists is that America is with them on keeping abortion legal, if not under all circumstances. According to a Gallup May 2012 survey, 52 percent of respondents hold that position, while on the fringes, 20 percent think it should be illegal under any circumstance and 25 percent favor the opposite view: legal under all circumstances.
But Americans who identify themselves as pro-choice and pro-life find many aspects of abortion policy on which they agree, once again bursting the myth that America is an either/or country on this topic. According to a Gallup study a year ago:
Self-described “pro-choice” and “pro-life” Americans agree about nine major areas of abortion policy, while disagreeing on eight others. Among the areas of consensus, in which a majority of both groups hold the same opinion, especially large percentages are in favor of requiring informed consent for women (86% of pro-choice adults and 87% who are pro-life) and making abortion illegal in the third trimester (79% and 94%).
Here’s the Gallup chart on the August 2011 survey (click on table to enlarge):
Despite these areas of agreement among Americans, Democrats appear to be readying a pro-choice rally of sorts, with absolutist abortion rights supporters from NARAL and Planned Parenthood, as well as free-contraception advocate Sandra Fluke, on their convention speaking roster.
Will this be effective? Some women might be persuaded that the GOP represents the party with little sympathy for women’s issues (thanks, Todd Akin) and thus some votes could be lost that might otherwise have gone to the Romney-Ryan ticket.
But, as has been pointed out numerous times by other pundits, abortion policy shows up very low on lists of issues of importance to voters this year, if it shows up at all. Democrats could once again send a message that they’re the party ignoring the larger universal challenges of high unemployment and a slow economy in favor of spending a lot of time on an issue where only around 20 percent of Americans share their absolutist views.
Missouri Republican senatorial nominee Todd Akin surely handed Democrats a golden opportunity to pound the GOP on women’s issues, especially abortion policy, this fall. But that opportunity isn’t without risks that Team Romney will just as surely exploit, as evidenced by the ticket’s handling of the “Mediscare” issue.
When Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate, many Democrats seemed absolutely gleeful, eager to remind the country that Ryan was the architect of Medicare reform that would push granny over the cliff. The Romney/Ryan team skillfully turned that issue back on the Democrats, pointing out the president’s own Medicare-changing program, now incorporated into unpopular ObamaCare. The issue was neutralized as a risk for Romney/Ryan and is looking more and more like a winner.
The same could happen with abortion. If Democrats seek to exploit the issue, Team Romney can point out the president’s own extreme positions and actions on this topic (see the Born Alive Act link above), at the very least neutralizing the issue as a negative for Romney/Ryan, at best showcasing Democrats’ desire to avoid the big challenges confronting the country while satisfying special interest extremes within their party.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist