The XX Factor

Don’t Panic About Abortion Rights.

Jessica , I’m not altogether surprised that the Nelson amendment was defeated, and not in a panic about abortion rights. The nation is at a stalemate on this issue, and has been for a very long time. Last week there was much hand-wringing over Jennifer Senior’s very provocative story suggesting that Americans are more anti-abortion than ever. The story merely shows that America is ambivalent, and has been for the last 30 years. There have been small shifts here and there in technology, generational indifference, and religious fervor, but the overall picture is pretty stagnant.

Here is her analysis of the shifting numbers:

In April 1975, according to Gallup, 21 percent of Americans thought abortion should be legal under all circumstances and 22 percent thought it should be illegal under all circumstances. In the early nineties, there was a brief spell where a full third of Americans believed abortion should always be legal. That started to slide midway through the Clinton years, and by May of this year, we were almost exactly where we started in 1975: 22 percent saying always legal and 23 saying always illegal.

The fact that the numbers have not shifted since 1975 is a good thing. Look at the Gallup poll graph: The vast majority of Americans have consistently said that abortion should be legal ” only under certain circumstances ,” which could mean something as broad as not in the third trimester. For a pretty religious nation, this seems pretty good, steady support for abortion rights.

Senior mentions the blip in increased support for the pro-choice position in the early 90s. This just happens to coincide with the ascendancy of the Christian right. Pat Buchanan delivered his famous culture war speech at the Republican convention in 1992, which must have scared people into admitting they were pro-choice. Obama, by contrast, would likely make them complacent.

Senior writes that the pro-choice side changed its tactics, and started talking more about government interfering with your rights. In the meantime, the pro-lifers began to focus on government funding of abortion, which led to the Stupak amendment. This seems to me like a fair fight, tit for tat, not a cause for alarm. Both are pretty narrow arenas that don’t say much about the broader cultural feeling.

Yes, the ultrasound makes us more aware of what we are doing. Yes, this generation is more complacent. But again, these are changes around the edges. They do not prove that if there were ever a serious threat to abortion rights, a generation would yawn.