Mark Shields: Misconception on abortion

Americans remain ambivalent, somehow pro-choice and anti-abortion

By Mark Shields

The answer to one question in the most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News national poll startled an awful lot of my friends and colleagues in the press corps who are pro-choice.

Because it is written and conducted by two respected pollsters, Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff, the Journal-NBC survey is trusted for both its professionalism and its fairness. So when, by a 44 percent to 37 percent margin, a plurality of Americans — including a plurality of college-educated women (by 44 percent to 40 percent) — answered that they do support efforts to ban abortions more than 20 weeks after fertilization, shockwaves were felt in many pro-choice precincts.

But wait. Earlier this year, the same poll asked this question: “The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe versus Wade decision established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Would you like to see the Supreme Court completely overturn its Roe versus Wade decision or not?” By a landslide 70 percent to 24 percent, Americans opposed overturning Roe V Wade.

How to reconcile these apparently contradictory positions? My suggestion: On the thorny, divisive issue of abortion, Americans are simultaneously pro-choice and anti-abortion. In short, most of us are unwilling to criminalize the painful, solitary decision a woman — presumably after consultation with her physician, her conscience and her confessor — makes to end the unborn human being she is carrying. (At no time during the nine months of the overly publicized pregnancy of Kate Middleton did anyone in print refer to the baby, now named George, as the royal fetus.) And let it be understood that nobody has ever won an election anywhere in this country running on the platform that what our nation needs is more abortions.

Nowhere is our ambivalence more clearly seen than when the Gallup Poll, for 40 years, has asked, “With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?”

This year, 48 percent self-identified as “pro-life,” and 45 percent called themselves “pro-choice.” This represents a change from 1995, when 56 percent of those interviewed said they were “pro-choice” and only 33 percent answered “pro-life.”

Between then and now, the miracles of medical science and technology have changed hearts and minds on the abortion issue. For example, last year when doctors spotted a potentially fatal tumor the size of a tennis ball growing on the face of Tammy Gonzales’ 17-week-old unborn baby, Ruben Quintero and Eftichia Kontopoulos became the first surgeons to successfully remove in utero a tumor from the face of an unborn baby. Lynda, weighing just over 8 pounds, was born normal and healthy.

Stories like this may explain why, in that latest WSJ-NBC poll, even though 62 percent of college-educated women believe that abortion should be legal, a plurality of that same group still backed the proposed ban on abortion 20 weeks following fertilization.

Still, the misperception of a big pro-choice majority in the country persists. Nowhere was this more evident than when Gallup last May asked, “Do you think most Americans are pro-choice or pro-life?” By a thumping 51 percent to 35 percent, Americans think their fellow citizens are “pro-choice” rather than “pro-life.”

Pro-choice voters thought, by 57 percent to 29 percent, that Americans were pro-choice. So too did Democrats, by a 56 percent to 32 percent margin. Even pro-life respondents believed by 46 percent to 44 percent that the U.S. was pro-choice, despite the fact that the same survey found Americans by a 48 percent to 45 percent margin named themselves pro-life. Attitudes on abortion are full of contradictions.

We remain ambivalent, somehow pro-choice and anti-abortion.

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