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What's Driving the Relentless Assault on Abortion in the United States?

Americans have grown more supportive of same -sex marriages, gun control, immigration reform and even taxes on the wealthiest individuals. But the war rages on over abortion.

This article first appeared on OpenDemocracy.

Americans have become more liberal, despite the rise of the Tea Party and the election of some of their right-wing politicians.  Teenagers can now buy “morning after” emergency contraception pills without consulting a physician or a pharmacist. The Supreme Court recently struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented same-sex marriages. It also upheld the right of same-sex couples in California to wed. As of July 2013, there are now  13 states that permit same-sex marriages. Despite the gridlock caused by Republicans in Congress,  more Americans than ever support gun control, immigration reform, same-sex marriage and taxes on the wealthiest individuals. This is why Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.

Why then, does state after state attempt to restrict women’s access to abortion? 

There are several answers.  David Leonhardt, the Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Times   argues that “Abortion is the relatively rare issue in which the cliché is true: public opinion does actually rest about midway between the parties’ platforms.” 

He is right; Democrats support abortion, even during the third trimester, while Republicans seek to make all abortions illegal. The truth is, Americans are deeply divided over abortion. Polls consistently  reveal that they are no more likely to support abortion than oppose it. According to recent  Gallup polls, about 60 % of the population supports a woman’s right to an abortion during the first trimester (or the first 12 weeks) and 64 % believe that an abortion should be illegal in the second trimester. Only 29% of those polled, however, want to  repeal Roe v. Wade and make abortion illegal.

Much has changed since the late 1960s when women and physicians fought for the right to abortion, which the Supreme Court legalized in its landmark decision,  Roe v. Wade, in 1973.  With the advanced technology of sonograms, both women and men can see that the fetus is not an abstraction, but an actual growing life.  The question for many, then, is when do the rights of the growing fetus trump the right of a woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy?  Is it at 12 weeks? 24 weeks? Always?  Or never?   

Politics, too, has also transformed the political culture. Katha Pollitt, the well-known columnist of the Nation magazine,  notes that as a result of the 2010 elections, right-wing Republicans flooded the state legislatures, thereby gaining new power to pass legislation that restricted abortions. The 2012 elections, unfortunately, didn’t change the Republican - controlled state legislatures. 

Another reason states have been able to limit access to abortion is that opponents have been extremely successful at conflating all abortions with the late-term, procedures performed during the third trimester. Though these are rare, they are nevertheless done. Often the woman involved has just discovered that the fetus has an incurable disease, or will be born dead. Nevertheless, the procedure itself is nothing like an abortion performed when a woman is six weeks pregnant.

This was dramatized in May, 2013 when the nation watched in horror as prosecutors described how Dr. Kermit Gosnell essentially  murdered a baby born alive in a botched abortion. The baby would have survived if the doctor hadn’t “snipped” its neck with scissors. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.  This is hardly the typical late-term abortion, but it certainly caused many people, including many liberal supporters, to re-visit the question, at what point should abortion be illegal? Liberal, pro-choice Bloomberg columnist  Margaret Carlson, for example, wrote, “There's almost no difference between killing a baby accidentally born alive in a late-term abortion, as Gosnell stands accused of, and killing the same baby in the womb, as more skilled doctors can do."

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