Burk is an associate professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College (Louisville, Kentucky)
Earlier this week, NBC and The Wall Street Journal released survey results showing that for the first time a majority of Americans want abortion to be legal. The NBC News report characterized the results this way:
“54 percent of adults say that abortion should be legal either always or most of the time, while a combined 44 percent said it should be illegal – either with or without exceptions… In addition, a whopping 70 percent of Americans oppose the Roe v. Wade decision being overturned, including 57 percent who feel strongly about this.”
When I first read this, I viewed it with no little skepticism. It seemed to go against the widely-known recent trend, which shows Americans by and large becoming more pro-life than previous generations. I wish that some reporters might have been as skeptical before seizing upon the results to argue that “Republicans should stop talking about Roe v. Wade.” It’s true that the pro-life cause received some really bad PR in 2012, but American attitudes toward abortion are more complicated than their feelings about Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin.
As it turns out, American attitudes are more complicated than even NBC News’ own report indicates. NBC News highlights what it believes to be two key numbers: (1) that 70 percent want Roe v. Wade to remain the law of the land and (2) that a majority of Americans want abortion to be legal. Both of these two points are misleading. But you have to actually look into the survey itself to see why.
First, the survey question about Roe v. Wade was very deceptive. It reads this way:
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? [underline mine]
This question leads people to believe that Roe v. Wade only establishes a right to abortion in the first trimester. That claim is transparently false. Roe v. Wade and its companion decision Doe v. Bolton effectively eliminate the relevance of trimesters. Roe and Doe establish a right to abortion at any time during pregnancy for any reason. If pollsters really want to find out what Americans think about Roe v. Wade, they should ask this: “Do you agree with Roe v. Wade that a woman should be able to have an abortion at any time during her pregnancy for any reason?” Polls show that a majority of Americans do not in fact agree with that interpretation of Roe. A majority of the respondents to this poll don’t even agree with that interpretation.
Second, the NBC/WSJ poll does not prove that a majority of Americans think abortion should be legal—at least not in the way that Roe v. Wade defines it. When asked if abortion should be legal, here’s how people actually responded:
Legal most of the time…………….…23%
Illegal, with exceptions…………..…35%
Illegal, without any exceptions….9%
Do the math here. This means that 67 percent believes that there should be some sort of restriction on abortion. Only 31 percent support the “always legal” position, which is the position of Roe v. Wade. Can you see now how misleading NBC News’ report was on these results?
The truth of the matter is that Americans are ambivalent about abortion. Solid majorities oppose the unrestricted license to abortion that Roe provides. Nevertheless, Americans are not willing to outlaw it altogether. Partly because they like abortion rights, and partly because they don’t understand Roe.
Bottom line. This is no time for Republicans (or pro-life Democrats for that matter) to stop talking about Roe v. Wade. If anything, we need to be saying louder than ever that Roe v. Wade provides an unrestricted license to abortion that has presided over the legal killing of 55 million human beings since 1973. The pro-life side still has the moral high ground in this debate, and we shouldn’t surrender it for any reason—much less for spurious reports like this one.
First published on the Denny Burk website on January 25, 2013. Reprint according to policy.
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