The Abortion Issue in the United States

Michael C Kearl. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

On his second full day as president of the United States, George W. Bush took swift action to restrict U.S. funds to international family planning groups involved in abortion. He vowed to protect “every person at every stage and season of life,” reversing the Clinton administration’s policy of providing unrestricted family planning aid. On the same day, Bush also gave the following written statement to marchers observing the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that legalized abortion:

The promises of our Declaration of Independence are not just for the strong, the independent or the healthy. They are for everyone, including unborn children. We share a great goal, to work toward a day when every child is welcomed in life and protected in law … to build a culture of life, affirming that every person at every stage and season of life, is created equal in God’s image.

Exactly 28 years earlier, on January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court launched one of the great social and political battles of our times. In the case of Roe v. Wade, the justices declared, in a seven-to-two decision, that women have a constitutional right to abortion and that states do not have the right to regulate abortions, particularly abortions performed during the first trimester.

The issue of abortion has divided Americans as few other moral issues have. Indeed, on the cover of its October 3, 1988, issue, U.S. News & World Report referred to the battle over abortion as “America’s New Civil War.” This issue has produced powerful political coalitions with millions of followers, demonstrations in which hundreds of thousands of marchers have taken part, bombings and burnings of scores of clinics, and even assassinations of abortion providers. Politicians’ attitudes toward abortion have become the political litmus test of their moral adequacy, and a number of office seekers have been selected or rejected solely because of their positions on this one issue.

Abortions have been practiced across both time and space. Anthropologist George Devereux (1954) has demonstrated the near universality of abortion in primitive, ancient, and preindustrial societies. Currently, an estimated 50 million abortions occur internationally each year, terminating 22% of all pregnancies and nearly half of all unplanned pregnancies. Three-fourths of the planet’s women live in countries where they have access to legal abortions. The American rate of abortion is higher than that in many other parts of the world, particularly European countries. According to a 1999 report published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, for every 100 pregnancies in the United States there are 25.9 abortions, compared with 62.6 in the Russian Federation, 43.7 in Vietnam, 34 in the Czech Republic, 27.4 in China, 26.4 in Australia, 25.2 in Sweden, 22 in Canada, 17.7 in France, 14.1 in Germany, 13.1 in Israel, 3.1 in Bangladesh, 2.4 in South Africa, and 2.1 in India.

Abortion was widely tolerated during the early years of the American nation. So how did it become such a divisive matter a century and a half later? Why has legalized abortion touched such a vital moral nerve in the United States and not so much in many other developed nations? Are the heated protests seen in the United States actually directed toward abortion per se, or is the issue some symbolic proxy for other underlying conflicts? As I will delineate in this chapter, the history of abortion in the United States involves central moral, religious, and social values as well as dynamics of race and class.

Trends in the Procedure

One year after induced abortion became legal, a 1974 National Planned Parenthood Association survey found this procedure to be the second most commonly performed surgical procedure (after tonsillectomies) in the United States. By 1980, more than 1.5 million abortions were being performed annually in this country, representing the termination of nearly one-third of all pregnancies. By century’s end, the total number of abortions in the United States since legalization had exceeded 34 million, more than the entire population of California. The Alan Guttmacher Institute (2000) has estimated that more than 4 in 10 American women will have abortions during their lifetimes.

The numbers of abortions peaked at 1.61 million in 1990 and declined throughout the 1990s to 1.33 million in 1997. The abortion rate (number of abortions per 100 women ages 15 to 44) dropped from a high of 29.3 in 1980 to 20 in 1995. These declines were due in part to increased contraceptive use, especially among teenagers, and in part to decreases in the numbers of service providers, which declined between 1992 and 1996 from 2,380 to 2,042 facilities (Henshaw 1998).

One reason for the high rate of abortions in the United States is the fact that American women have among the highest rates of unplanned pregnancies of all industrialized countries. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute (1999), nearly one-half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned (and one-half of these are terminated by abortion), compared with 31.8% in Great Britain and 17% in the Netherlands. Interestingly, the nation with the most liberal abortion laws, the Netherlands, has the third-lowest abortion rate.

Historical Evolution of the American Debate

Abortions were being performed in North America long before the founding of the United States. Before 1840, according to the research of James C. Mohr (1978), the practice was largely tolerated if performed before “quickening” (fetal movement, which typically begins around the 20th week of pregnancy). Most abortions were performed on the unmarried and desperate of the “poor and unfortunate classes,” but the practice gradually expanded to include upper- and middle-class, white, native-born Protestants (p. 11).

Although the first laws against abortion appeared during the 1820s, it was only in the mid-19th century that the practice became generally outlawed—largely at the behest of the medical profession (Shenkman 1988). Moral crusaders against abortion, many of them physicians, first appeared during the 1850s; their efforts influenced some state legislatures to criminalize the procedure during the first decade following the Civil War. Mohr (1978) argues that the physicians who participated in this anti-abortion movement were motivated less by moral concerns than by their own elitist fears of a drop in the birthrate among of society’s “better” classes (at a time when approximately one in five pregnancies was deliberately aborted, according to an estimate made by a committee of the American Medical Association in 1871) and by their desire to enhance their own professional recognition and monopolize the provision of health care. “Given the primitive nature of medical practice” at the time, Kristin Luker (1984) notes, “persuading the public that embryos were human lives and then persuading state legislatures to protect these lives by outlawing abortion may have been one of the few life-saving projects actually available to physicians” (p. 31).

Concurrently affecting the issue during this period was the institutionalization of Victorian attitudes toward sexuality. The Comstock Law, passed in 1873, officially criminalized birth control devices, the distribution of information on birth control and sexuality, and abortion. Within two decades, state laws appeared raising the age of consent. California, one of the first states to enact such statutes, increased the age from 10 to 14 in 1889, from 14 to 16 in 1897, and from 16 to 18 in 1913. Tennessee went the furthest, making it a felony for anyone to have sex with any woman under age 21 (Dolhenty 1998).

When the 20th century began, all states had laws outlawing abortion (Insel and Roth 2000). Public opinion on the procedure, which had largely been indifferent, had shifted to firm opposition toward this illegal act, which was also deemed immoral. The objectivity of women on the matter was questioned as the issue became framed in terms of the rights of women against those of embryos (Luker 1984:40). On the other hand, a countercurrent was developing, championed by Margaret Sanger and her reproductive freedom movement, as women discovered empowerment with the suffragist movement. Believing in the public’s right to be informed about birth control, Sanger opened the nation’s first birth control clinic in 1916 and 5 years later founded the American Birth Control League, the predecessor of Planned Parenthood. Sanger’s ideas, however, were to be tarnished by perceptions that Sanger was a supporter of eugenics and a racist. This linking of contraception and abortion has evolved into two dialectical extremes in which both are seen either as aspects of personal liberty or as the eugenic means for lowering the populations of society’s “lesser persons.”

With the sexual revolution in the 1920s, according to Leslie Reagan (1998), 15,000 American women were dying each year from illegal abortions. Abortion remained a common medical practice until 1940, when states began enforcing the laws more vigorously—producing the “back alley” abortions that led to Roe. In 1971, a year after abortions were decriminalized in New York, the state’s maternal mortality rate dropped 45% (Pollitt 1997).

Beginning in the late 1960s, the United States experienced unprecedented increases in female participation in the labor force and a corresponding growth in feminist awareness. With the spread of contraceptives, women realized new control over their reproductive capacities, freedom from being shackled by unwanted pregnancies. In 1967, Colorado passed the first law legalizing abortion, permitting it in cases in which carrying a pregnancy to term would cause serious impairment to the mother’s physical or mental health, in cases of severe fetal defects, and in situations where the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. It was in this context in 1973 that the U.S. Supreme Court made two decisions that struck down the anti-abortion statutes then in force in Texas and Georgia. In Roe v. Wade, the Court deemed an unborn child not to be a person within the meaning and protection of the term personas stated in the 14th Amendment. Basing its ruling on a woman’s right to privacy, the Court said that a decision to have an abortion during the first 3 months of pregnancy must be left to the woman and her doctor. In Doe v. Bolton, the Court struck down restrictions on the kinds of facilities where abortions can be performed, saying that the procedure cannot legitimately be confined to hospital settings.

The Post-Roe v. Wade Era

The legalization of abortion triggered a number of questions: Should any restrictions on abortion be decided by legislators or by judges? Can states require a minor to obtain parental consent before an abortion? Can states require that a woman take a 24-hour “cooling-off” period before having an abortion? Can the government direct physicians to warn women of the risks and consequences of abortion? Must women having abortions in their second trimester of pregnancy be required to undergo the procedure in a hospital (Gest 1982)?

The debate surrounding abortion spawned powerful social movements over the final quarter of the 20th century. Hundreds of thousands of abortion supporters and opponents marched in many demonstrations. In 1992, for instance, an estimated one-half million individuals marched from the White House to the Capitol Mall in demonstration of their support for abortion rights and against a restrictive Pennsylvania law requiring, among other things, that any woman seeking an abortion observe a 24-hour waiting period and that a married woman seeking an abortion inform her husband of her intent. National organizations emerged and cultivated grassroots connections throughout the country. Fueled in dialectical opposition were such key players as Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation (a consortium of abortion providers) on one side and the National Right to Life Committee (which claimed at century’s end to have 3.5 million supporters, 400,000 donors, and 3,000 chapters) on the other (“Pro-Life Resources” 2000).

Ironically, a century after physicians gave anti-abortion laws their support, medical groups were opposing laws intended to curb abortion. In 1982, the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Nurses Association of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics urged the U.S. Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional an Akron, Ohio, city ordinance that required hospital abortions for women past their third month of pregnancy, forbade abortions for those under the age of 15 without parental consent, and required physicians to read to their patients an account of the procedure’s dangers. These organizations argued that such measures “interfere significantly with a woman’s ability to exercise her constitutional right to decide whether or not to terminate her pregnancy” (quoted in Greenhouse 1982:1). The moral relativity of scientific medicine once again came to clash with the moral certainty of religion.

Battles for the Moral High Ground

The essence of power is persuasion, and the key to understanding this is to grasp how particular perspectives on life, or frames, are imposed on people’s consciousnesses. Set the frame, and one sets the gestalt by which individuals make sense of their existence. Frames structure experience and give it meaning; they thereby guide social action (Goffman 1974).

The variability of the frames through which abortion is viewed is in part a result of Americans’ deep ambivalence about the matter. As Roger Rosenblatt (1992) has noted, as of 1990, polls revealed that 73% of Americans favored abortion rights, yet 77% regarded abortion as “some form of murder”—in other words, many people live with the dissonance of supporting the legality of what they see as an immoral act. Add to this moral equation Cold War concerns over regime righteousness and reports in the late 1980s that in the godless Soviet state there were an estimated 2.08 abortions for every child born as opposed to 0.4 abortions for every American child born, and that in the Soviet Union an 8-minute abortion was available for 5 rubles ($7.50) whereas in the United States the average abortion cost $213 (“Life Beyond the Kremlin” 1988).

Also permitting various interpretations of abortion are such underlying issues as women’s place in contemporary society, attitudes toward sexuality, the selfishness of excessive individualism, and the nature of social support for mothers and children in a society of increasing illegitimacy (at the beginning of the 21st century, roughly one-third of the nation’s children were born out of wedlock—a proportion 2.5 times that of two decades earlier) and high rates of divorce that produce millions of impoverished, unloved, and undersocialized youth. Some saw the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the so-called morning-after abortion pill, mifepristone or RU-486, in 2000 as yet another example of the no-fault, me-first, pill-taking ethos of modern consumer society.

These frames have shaped the language of the debate on abortion and the very labels the competing groups apply to themselves, triggering deep-seated feelings. Following the shootings of two Brooklyn, Massachusetts, abortion clinic receptionists in late 1993, for instance, a Planned Parenthood blamed the murders on pro-life rhetoric in a newspaper ad with the headline “Words Kill.”

In an informal exploration of when the group labels attached to the opposing sides in the abortion debate first entered American parlance, I found the term pro-life first appearing in the New York Times on November 28, 1972, and the term pro-choice first appearing in the Washington Post on June 28, 1977. It is unclear whether these labels were classifications made by journalists before they were employed as self-referents by these groups.

Abortion is, by definition, “feticide.” As Naomi Wolf (1995) notes in developing her argument that the pro-choice movement needs to frame its defense of abortion rights morally, “The death of a fetus is a real death” (p. 26). Is abortion “homicide” or simply a “reproductive health procedure”? Consider the bias of the term unborn child. Karen W. Kramer (1990) points out that the terminology of the abortion debate became polarized over the 20-year period of her study. Her content analysis of articles on abortion shows that the proportions of references to “unborn child,” “unborn infant,” and “unborn baby” in sources associated with the pro-life movement increased during this period. Similarly, references to “fetus,” “embryo,” and “egg” increased in sources associated with the pro-choice movement during the period.

From these framings and attributions, some extreme analogies have emerged. Some observers have likened abortion to the Holocaust. One commentator has written that the “denial of abortion is like forcing a person to spend nine months intravenously hooked up to a medically endangered stranger who happens to be a famous violinist” (Pollitt 1997:112). Seeking legitimacy, pro-choice advocates have cited evidence of biblical approval of abortion (for examples, see Brian McKinley’s “Why Abortion is Biblical” Web site at Pro-life proponents have countered with quotations from early, well-known feminists who abhorred the practice. For instance, the Women and Children First organization’s Web site devoted to Roe v. Wade ( quotes Susan B. Anthony referring to abortion as “child-murder” and Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that “the woman who has recourse to abortion disowns feminist values.” In a blow to the pro-choice movement, Norma McCorvey, aka “Jane Roe,” gained a great deal of publicity when she defected from the movement in 1995 to become a born-again Christian and anti-abortion spokeswoman.

The Shifting Battle Lines

Like players in a game of chess, both sides in the abortion debate have strategically employed wide-ranging ethical issues to legitimate their moral positions and to neutralize the claims of the other. Over time, both sides have expanded their focus to proclaim abortion’s effects on the moral order of the broader culture. Anti-abortionists have developed slippery-slope theses, arguing that the availability of legal abortion increases sexual permissiveness and godlessness and diminishes respect for human life. By contrast, pro-choice proponents have asserted that abortion restrictions are patriarchal tools of oppression.

The issue has expanded into debates concerning sex education, sexual abstinence, birth control, and even AIDS. It has also produced violence and death. According to the National Abortion Federation, between 1977 and 1998 there were more than 1,700 attacks against abortion providers in the United States and at least 6 fatal shootings. Following the first murder of an abortion provider in 1993, the Reverend David Trosch, a Catholic priest in Mobile, Alabama, and founder of Life Enterprises Unlimited, was one of the signers of a declaration that labeled the death a “justifiable homicide.” After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax deaths, hundreds of abortion clinics throughout the country received letters and packages containing threats and powdery substances. Most of the letters were signed by the Army of God and warned that the recipients would soon experience anthrax symptoms: “You have chosen a profession, which profits from the senseless murder of million of innocent children each year. We are going to kill you. This is your notice. Stop now or die” (quoted in Lewin 2001).

Fetal Rights: When Does Personhood Begin?

At what point of fetal development does the human organism become a “person,” a social member in full standing? The Catholic Church teaches that “ensoulment” occurs at the moment of conception. Until a few centuries ago in the West, personhood was often not conferred until a child had survived to the age of several years. Rates of infant mortality were so high that it was not unusual for families to postpone the naming of small children, and infants’ deaths did not merit funerary attention.

Owing to recent medical advances and insight, however, citizenship rights have been extended to the womb. For example, a death certificate must be completed for a fetus if death occurs within the third trimester of pregnancy. In a 1994 case, a man who caused a woman to miscarry her 2-month-old fetus—which was incapable of surviving outside her womb and was of a legally abortable age—was convicted of murder. The California Supreme Court upheld the conviction in a six-to-one decision. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas stated, “The third-party killing of a fetus with malice aforethought is murder…as long as the state can show that the fetus has progressed beyond the embryonic stage of seven to eight weeks” (People v. Davis 1994:815). In contrast, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in a 1985 case involving the death of an 8½-month-old fetus in an auto accident that the man accused in the accident could not be charged with the death, reasoning that it was not a human being who had died, as the victim had not yet been born.

There have also been cases in which matters of fetal rights have been, from the pro-choice perspective, employed to curtail women’s rights. Women, for instance, have been charged with contributing to their infants’ deaths or with causing fetal injury through drug abuse. A Massachusetts judge had a pregnant woman taken into state custody through an order of protection on behalf of the fetus she carried. Until the practice was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ferguson v. City of Charleston decision, the Medical University of South Carolina was testing pregnant women for drug use and, in violation of the Fourth Amendment, was turning over positive results to the police.

During the late 1990s, pro-life forces shifted the focus of abortion politics to late-term abortions. Medically referred to as dilation and extraction, this procedure involves inducing a partial breech delivery, cutting the fetus’s skull, and then suctioning its contents. Anti-abortionists labeled this late-second- and third-trimester procedure partial-birth abortion and successfully created divisions within the ranks of abortion proponents by disseminating gruesome descriptions. However, they rarely mentioned the extreme rarity of the procedure (less than 1% of all abortions take place after the 21st week of pregnancy) and the fact that it is usually performed on fetuses known to have serious fatal birth defects (Blank 2001). In the 2000 case of Stenberg v. Carhart, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of five to four, overturned a Nebraska law making the procedure illegal.

In early 2002, President Bush declared that embryos and developing fetuses qualify for a government health care program. He asserted that this stance had nothing to do with the abortion issue—rather, he framed it as a strategy to accelerate low-income women’s eligibility for subsidized prenatal care by qualifying them from the moment of conception—but it nevertheless amounted to federal recognition that life begins at the moment of conception.

The Death of the Unborn to Save the Unborn

One way of checkmating an absolutist opponent is to place him or her in a no-win moral predicament. Concurrent with the heating up of the abortion debate has been an increase in the use of fertility drugs and the implanting of multiple embryos following in vitro fertilization, producing a rise in the numbers of multiple births. In some instances, women have become pregnant with more fetuses than they could safely carry—in one case octuplets. Given the pro-life focus on the rights of the fetus, what are the rights of the fetuses in such cases, if all are doomed unless their numbers are reduced through selective abortion?

The Biological and Psychological Damage Wrought to Aborting Females

To counter pro-choice attempts to frame the abortion controversy in terms of women’s rights, the pro-life movement has given publicity to studies purporting that women who elect abortions are subject to various harms. Stories have been disseminated that focus on lifelong guilt and on assertions that “post-abortion syndrome” is an emerging public health issue (Speckhard and Rue 1992). Pro-life interests have also asserted that studies have found that the damage caused by abortion is biological as well as psychological, as illustrated by findings indicating that women who have had induced abortions have a 30% higher risk of breast cancer than do women who have not had abortions (Brind et al. 1996).

On the other side of the debate, psychiatrist Paul Dagg (1991) has reported that more than one-third of the women in his study sample who were denied abortions and kept their babies (as most did) admitted to years of feeling strong resentment and anger toward their unwanted children. The children, in turn, were more likely than their wanted counterparts to drop out of school, commit crime, and suffer depression.

The Right Not to Be Born

Countering the anti-abortionists’ focus on fetal rights, liberal newspapers gave significant coverage in 2001 to a decision made by France’s highest appeals court that an individual born with a severe handicap is entitled to compensation if the mother was not given the opportunity to have an abortion—even if that would have meant the plain- tiff’s nonexistence. The case involved a woman who contracted German measles while pregnant and whose disease was not diagnosed. Eighteen years later, her child was deaf, nearly blind, and mentally retarded. To some observers, the court’s granting of the award implied that the boy was worse-off alive than if he had never been born.

The Death of the Unborn to Extend the Lives of the Living

One of the first acts of the Clinton administration in 1993 was to abolish the Bush-administration’s 5-year ban on federal financing of research using transplanted fetal tissue. Experiments using transplanted fetal tissue had shown promise for patients with Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, thalassemia, severe combined immunodeficiency disease, and other ailments (Watanabe 1993). A panel of ethical, medical, and legal experts convened in 1987 by Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine endorsed the transplantation of brain tissue from aborted fetuses to aid those suffering from such maladies. A year later, the morality of such procedures was deemed acceptable by an advisory committee of the National Institutes of Health. Anti-abortion groups, however, argued that such activity might encourage abortion.

In the late 1990s, debate shifted to the medical use of stem cells harvested from aborted fetuses and leftover embryos in fertility clinics. Human stem cells are yet-to-be specialized cells that hold the promise of being programmed to produce particular body parts, such as new hearts, lungs, and brain cells. With the hope of curing such maladies as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and leukemia, excitement over the research was considerable in the scientific community. Although stem cells are found in adult tissue, it was initially believed that the potential of such cells in adults was too specialized, unlike the all-purpose cells found in fetal tissue. Unfortunately, using this resource required the destruction of the fetus, which alarmed various pro-life groups, particularly the Vatican.

Longitudinal Analyses of Americans’ Abortion Attitudes and the Social and Cultural Factors Underlying the Debate

Given the aforementioned arguments, it should come as no surprise that Americans are almost evenly split in their attitudes toward legal abortion. In 2002, a Gallup poll found that 48% of Americans were “satisfied” with abortion policies in the United States, and 43% were dissatisfied. When asked if these policies should remain the same or be changed, 39% stated that they favored preserving the status quo, 39% favored making policies stricter, and 19% favored making policies less strict (Saad 2002). According to the combined 1972-2000 data from the General Social Surveys (GSS) conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (Davis and Smith 2000), support for the right of women to have a legal abortion “for whatever reason” (the least supported of the seven abortion questions asked in the GSS) peaked in 1994 at 45% and has consistently declined thereafter, to 38% in 2000. Cohort effects are not as great as one might expect, with virtually no difference in attitudes toward abortion among those born after 1940 and only a difference of 10 percentage points in support between those born after 1940 and those born during the 1920s and 1930s. The only cohorts that have significantly changed their position toward abortion as they have aged are those born during the 1950s and 1960s, and their attitudes have shifted in the liberal direction—more so for males than for females.

Figure 1 illustrates the remarkable consistency over time in Americans’ attitudes toward abortion under varying conditions. Despite the fact that attitudes in 2000 were not that different from attitudes in 1972, there have been some fascinating shifts in how the abortion issue has resided in Americans’ minds.

The Swinging Political Pendulum

With Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency, the pro-life movement allied itself firmly with the Republican Party, thereby knitting the religious right into the fabric of the GOP (Gailey 1986a). Not about to alienate this new constituency, the Reagan administration made it clear on numerous occasions that it intended to encourage the U.S. Supreme Court to review and overthrow the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. In opposing abortion, President Reagan initially referred to the procedure as “taking the life of a living human being”; later, he called it “murder” (Gailey 1986b).

Reagan’s pro-life ideology also extended to the rights of severely deformed infants. In 1983, the president initiated a regulation with a directive to the attorney general and the secretary of Health and Human Resources that required all hospitals receiving federal funds to post the following notice: “Discriminatory failure to feed and care for handicapped infants in this facility is prohibited by Federal law.” In addition, the notice stated that anyone having knowledge of the denial of “customary medical care” to handicapped infants should call the federal government, and a toll-free telephone number was provided for that purpose (Pear 1983). The following year, however, the administration had to back down from its attempt to force hospitals to maintain the lives of seriously deformed infants. Following the Reagan presidency, the abortion issue contributed to the greatest voting “gender gap” since 1920, as women defected from the Republican Party. A key plank in the 1988 Republican Party platform left no doubt about the party’s position on abortion:

The unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We therefore reaffirm our support for a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the 14th Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children … [a]nd we reaffirm our support for the appointment of judges at all levels of the judiciary who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life.

To keep up the momentum gathered by the Reagan administration, President George H. Bush proclaimed January 20, 1991, National Sanctity of Human Life Day. However, with the Democrats’ return to the White House 2 years later, much of the pro-life agenda underwent dismantling. Within months of President Clinton’s taking office, federal employees were able to obtain abortions and have them paid for by their health insurance for the first time in a decade.

Figure 2 illustrates how individuals’ views on abortion have over time become fused with party identification, as Democrats increasingly favor the right of women to have abortions on demand and Republicans have changed their position very little. During the 1977-83 period, strong Republicans were more likely to favor a woman’s right to an abortion “for whatever reason” than were strong Democrats. By the 1984-88 period, the two groups were indistinguishable in their level of support for abortion rights. However, in the 1994-98 period, only 30% of strong Republicans answered the question “Do you think a woman should have the right to a legal abortion if she wants it for any reason?” in the affirmative, compared with nearly one-half of strong Democrats. Strong party identification came to require loyalty to the abortion stance of one’s party—hence the longitudinal growth in support among strong Democrats and in opposition among strong Republicans. An unbridgeable chasm opened on the political landscape as Americans’ moral ambivalence toward abortion became polarized by party.

Religion’s Influence on Public Sentiment

As I have noted above, Americans’ religiosity also fueled the explosiveness of the debate. In 1985, Dr. Russell Nelson, a member of the Council of the Twelve, the governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stated regarding abortion that the loss of life from “the evils of war” was “dwarfed by the war on the defenseless” (“Mormon Leader” 1985). Bishop John J. O’Connor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, said in a 1984 television interview: “I always compare the killing of 4,000 babies a day in the United States, unborn babies, to the Holocaust. Now Hitler tried to solve a problem, the Jewish question. So kill them, shove them in the ovens, burn them. Well, we claim that unborn babies are a problem, so kill them. To me, it really is precisely the same” (quoted in Goldman 1984).

The more conservative the faith, the stronger the opposition to abortion. According to the combined 1998 and 2000 General Social Surveys, the proportions of persons favoring a woman’s right to a legal abortion “for whatever reason” by religious group ranged from 28% of fundamentalist Protestants and 34% of Catholics to 43% of moderate and liberal Protestants and 76% of Jews. Interestingly, over the 23-year period that the GSS has included this abortion question, the greatest shift in attitudes has been found among those with no religious affiliation, whose support has declined by 10 percentage points.

The divisiveness of the abortion question is illustrated by the splits that exist even among those sharing the same religious faith. Within all religious groups but the moderate Protestant denominations and Jews, profound differences in responses to this question have been found between those who are strongly religious and those who are not strongly religious: 19% versus 35% favoring among fundamentalist Protestants, 20% versus 42% among Catholics, and 35% versus 50% among liberal Protestants.

Survey data consistently show that those who are better paid and better educated are more likely to favor abortion. Returning to the combined 1998 and 2000 General Social Surveys, for instance, we find that 51% of those with 4 or more years of college education favored a woman’s right to an abortion “for whatever reason,” compared with only 29% of high school dropouts. Support also increases with income, from 35% among those making less than $10,000 a year to 54% among those making $90,000 or more. However, the more conservative individuals’ religious faith, the less impact such liberalizing factors have.

The Controversy’s Connections to the Feminist Movement and Matters of Sex

The abortion debate is thoroughly interwoven with the much broader issue of women’s position in society and the exercise of power over women’s reproductive lives. It is not coincidental that the abortion controversy heated up around the same time the ERA movement gained momentum in the 1970s. According to one feminist perspective, constraints on abortion rights are the newest mechanism by which patriarchal society controls women. Members of the pro-life movement, attempting to maintain their framing of the debate in terms of fetal rights, have countered with the argument that abortion actually reinforces patriarchy. For example, the Women and Children First organization (see the Web site at asserts the following:

  • Abortion promotes patriarchy, as its legal status was handed down by nine old men, abortion facilities are owned and operated primarily by men, abortionists are primarily men, and the people making millions of dollars from abortion each and every year—by exploiting women—are men.
  • Abortion supports patriarchy because of sex-selection abortions. Abortion allows women (or forceful men) to choose to abort children on the basis of sex (i.e., unwanted females). In India, for instance, out of 8,000 abortions, 7,999 were female.

When one examines the relationship between Americans’ attitudes toward abortion and the statement “women should take care of running their homes and leave running the country up to men” (using the combined 1977-98 GSS), one finds that those who disagree that a woman’s place is at home are roughly twice as likely to endorse the right of a woman to have an abortion for whatever reason (variable ABANY) as are those who agree that home is the woman’s place (Davis and Smith 2000). When Americans were asked about the accessibility of information on birth control (“In some places in the U.S., it is not legal to supply birth control information. How do you feel about this—do you think birth control information should be available to anyone who wants it, or not?”), of those who said such information should be available, 40% approved of ABANY, as opposed to only 11% of those who said such information should not be available.

Again looking at the GSS 1977-98, those favoring sex education in the public schools were 2.5 times more likely to approve of ABANY than those opposing such education. Similarly, when asked if methods of birth control should be available to teenagers between the ages of 14 and 16, 60% of those who strongly agreed approved of ABANY, as opposed to 23% of those who strongly disagreed.

The Abortion Conflict as another Facet of the Battle Between the Haves and the Have-Nots

Before Roe v. Wade, social class largely determined the quality of the abortion experience. Women who were well connected had relatively easy access to safe, clean procedures, whereas women from the lower classes who sought abortions were forced to rely on providers whose methods were less medically safe, and they were thus more likely to be maimed or to die as a result. Three decades after abortion’s legalization, poor women were three times more likely to have abortions than those financially better-off (National Abortion Federation 1990). Ironically, according to a survey Richard Wirthlin conducted for Reader’s Digest in 1992, opposition to federal funding of abortions increases as individuals’ position in the social hierarchy decreases. In Wirthlin’s survey, those respondents making more than $60,000 annually favored federal funding of abortions by a 57-41 margin; those making less than $15,000 opposed it by a margin of 63-27 (cited in Gergen 1993).

This relationship between social class and support for abortion is evident in the data displayed in Table 1. The higher Americans’ social class identifications, the more likely they are to support abortion on demand. However, class differences have contracted significantly over time, more so for men than for women, as support for abortion rights has dramatically increased among those of the lower class and waned among those identifying with the upper class.

On the surface, such patterns of class support might suggest that those at the top of the social hierarchy support abortion rights because they hope to check the proliferation of minorities and the poor, whereas those at the bottom fear that these “rights” are, in actuality, a mechanism for diminishing their likelihood of reproducing. But if this were an accurate portrayal of the unspoken reasoning of the upper classes, wouldn’t the Republic Party endorse abortion rights? And what of the tensions between feminists and minorities within the Democratic Party?

It is not hard to understand why some members of minority groups harbor suspicions that abortion represents racial genocide. Indeed, by the late 1980s, 70% of Planned Parenthood clinics, the nation’s largest chain of abortion facilities, were concentrated in black and Hispanic neighborhoods (Keath 1989). There also remain memories of the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, who in her book The Pivot of Civilization (1922) warned against free maternity care for the poor and “dysgenic” races, those “stocks that are most detrimental to the future of the race and the world” (pp. 116-17). Black women are more than three times as likely as white women to have abortions, and Hispanic women have roughly twice as many abortions as white women. Whereas about 16% of pregnancies among non-Hispanic white women end in abortion, the proportion for Hispanic women is 22% and that for non-Hispanic black women is 38% (Ventura et al. 2000:11). The General Social Surveys, however, reveal that although there were significant racial differences in attitudes toward abortion in the early 1980s—with blacks, particularly black males, most opposed—by century’s end the differences had become insignificant.

In a curious turn of events, the beginning of the 21st century saw the publication of an academic thesis that has drawn condemnation from both sides of the abortion controversy. In 2001, John Donahue and Steven Levitt reported a causal connection between crime and abortion rates in an article in Harvard University’s Quarterly Journal of Economics.Arguing that crime is largely the product of the unwanted children brought into the world by young, poor, undereducated, and unmarried females, Donahue and Levitt demonstrated statistically how state abortion rates are correlated with crime rates 15 to 18 years later. They note, “According to our estimates, legalized abortion may account for as much as one-half of the overall crime reduction… [suggesting] that the social benefit to reduced crime as a result of abortion may be on the order of $30 billion annually” (p. 414).

Conclusion: Abortion as a Core Component of an Emerging American Death Ideology

As the above discussion has shown, over the final quarter of the 20th century, although Americans’ attitudes toward abortion changed little overall, there were shifts in the compositions of the so-called pro-life and pro-choice movements. Positions on the issue of abortion became increasingly melded with political party identification, whereas class and racial differences contracted to near insignificance. Religious faith and religiosity were, and remain, the most potent predictors of opposition to abortion in the United States. Interestingly, over this period, attitudes toward abortion became increasingly fused in Americans’ minds with two other death-related moralities: those surrounding euthanasia and the right of the terminally ill to end their lives.

In the early 1980s, my colleague Richard Harris and I demonstrated the existence of an American death ideology and demonstrated the robust correlations of a scale measuring that ideology with a wide assortment of measures of contemporary individualism (Kearl and Harris 1981-82). We found, contrary to Granberg’s (1978) claims, that antiabortionism does not entail an underlying consistent ideology and that those scoring on the most permissive end of this scale—specifically, those who endorsed euthanasia, the moral right of the terminally ill to commit suicide, and abortion—were most likely to condone homosexual lifestyles, to favor the legalization of marijuana, to consider it acceptable for a man and woman to have sexual relations before marriage, to disagree that a woman’s place is in the home, to not believe in life after death, and to be divorced. We took this as empirical support for the key proposition of thanatological determinists (e.g., Becker 1973; Bauman 1992) that an individual’s orientation toward matters of death lies at the very core of his or her entire moral framework.

Let’s examine the status of this ideology over the 20 years since its detection. Specifically, to be considered are longitudinal trends in Americans’ responses to the following three questions posed by the General Social Surveys (Davis and Smith 2000):

  • Do you think it should be possible for a woman to obtain a legal abortion if the woman wants it for any reason? (variable ABANY; % yes 1977 = 36.6, 2000 = 38.0)
  • Do you think a person has the right to end his or her own life if this person has an incurable disease? (SUICIDE1; % yes 1977 = 37.9, 2000 = 54.8)
  • When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient’s life by some painless means if the patient and his family request it? (LETDIE1; % yes 1977 = 59.7, 2000 = 64.4)

These three variables, listed in decreasing degree of difficulty to agree, form a Guttman scale: one first agrees with euthanasia, next with the right of the terminally ill to commit suicide, and finally with abortion. As the data displayed in Table 2 show, whereas in the 1977-80 period 22.8% of Americans agreed with euthanasia, suicide, and abortion, by the 1996-2000 period 34.3% agreed with all items—in other words, there was a 50% increase. The figures in the bottom row of the table show that this death ideology (e.g., if one disagrees with abortion then one disagrees with suicide and euthanasia, or if one disagrees with euthanasia then one also disagrees with suicide and abortion) has generally increased in consistency over time.

The data in Table 3 illustrate how this death ideology has polarized those at both ends of the political spectrum. Whereas in the 1977-80 period 33% of liberals and 19% of conservatives approved of all three death items, for a difference of 14.8 percentage points, by century’s end this difference had nearly doubled. In addition, within each category of political ideology, the differences between the sexes increase the further to the right one goes. Among liberals, the sex difference in disagreeing with all three items is about 1.4%, increasing to 9.0% for moderates and to 14.2% among conservatives. Among conservatives, this sex difference peaked in the late 1980s. It is because of the fusing of moral beliefs toward abortion, euthanasia, and suicide among the terminally ill that President George W. Bush’s decision on stem cell research became one of the defining events of the first year of his presidency—there was no middle ground, so thoroughly polarized had Americans’ moral calculus become.