by Susan E. Wills, Esq.
January 28, 2005
There's an expression that sums up my frustration each January: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Every January 22, when the mainstream media pays fleeting attention to the abortion "issue," they do not report that the landscape of abortion has changed for the better – statistically, culturally, and even legally. And every January, some trot out the same tiresome myth that Roe v. Wade "made abortion legal in the first trimester." This implies, of course, that abortions are illegal after the first trimester. (Aaaarrrgghhh!)
In a recent debate at Georgetown Law School, a National Abortion Federation spokeswoman fibbed: "Most states have laws prohibiting late-term abortions." Luckily, the bishops' spokeswoman was there to correct the record: 19 of these laws prohibit nothing because they contain the infamous "health exception" which allows abortions for such "health" reasons as "can't afford a baby" and "not ready for the responsibility" (the main reasons women cite for having an abortion); the rest of the state prohibitions are unenforceable because they lack the broad "health" definition required by Doe v. Bolton: "all factors – physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age – relevant to the well-being of the patient."
This January the USCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities tried to place ads in DC Metro trains. The ads simply and tastefully point out that abortion is legal throughout pregnancy. (See www.secondlookproject.org.) Lawyers for DC Metro were incredulous: It can't be! Send us proof! They poured over our documents, parsed the relevant Court opinions, and concluded that, gosh, abortion actually is legal after the first trimester. As a 1983 Senate Judiciary Committee report puts it: "no significant legal barriers of any kind whatsoever exist today in the United States for a woman to obtain an abortion for any reason during any stage of pregnancy."
Why do some opinion polls on abortion (like a widely-cited November 2004 Associated Press poll) show strong support for Roe v. Wade? Because when you ask a twisted question, you get a twisted answer: "... The 1973 Supreme Court ruling called Roe v. Wade made abortion in the first three months of pregnancy legal. Do you think President Bush should nominate Supreme Court justices who would uphold the Roe v. Wade decision, or nominate justices who would overturn the Roe v. Wade decision?" Fifty-nine percent were sufficiently deceived by this question, and opted to support Roe.
What is the true gauge of public opinion on Roe? A substantial majority of Americans are opposed to almost all abortions. Polls conducted in 2004 by Wirthlin Worldwide and Zogby found that 55% and 56% of respondents, respectively, would ban or narrowly restrict abortion to circumstances of life endangerment, rape or incest (prohibiting the 98% of abortions done for other reasons). Another 25% said abortion should be legal for any reason, but only in the first trimester. In a May 2003 Gallup poll, 19% would ban all abortions and 42% would permit them in only a few circumstances. Result: 61% "pro-life" vs. 23% favoring current law.
We're winning the battle for hearts and minds, but don't count on the mainstream media to get the story straight. That's your job and mine.
Susan Wills is associate director for education, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.