Late in April the New York Times and CBS News collaborated in a remarkable survey of U.S. opinion on abortion. Several findings were surprising.
-The most ardent backers of maintaining Roe vs. Wade as is are unmarried males (60 percent). Next are unmarried women (54 percent). Next are married men (46 percent), and last of all married women (42 percent). In general, more men than women (51 to 47 percent) want to keep abortion as it is. Abortion is not a woman's issue so much as it's a man's. Unmarried males prefer it most of all.- Lest it go unnoticed, the unmarried want access to abortion more than the married. More of the married than the unmarried want some restrictions on abortion.
- Blacks are more likely to want restrictions on abortion than whites.
- Of those Protestants for whom religion is "not so important," 61 percent want to keep abortion legal as now. Of Protestants for whom religion is "very important," 62 percent want either some restrictions on abortion or no abortions.
- Of Catholics for whom Catholicism is "not so important," 72 percent want abortion as it is now. Of Catholics for whom religion is "very important," 71 percent want some restrictions on abortion or no abortions.
- Thus, religious seriousness seems to be a prime motivator (but not necessarily the intellectual reason) for placing some restriction on abortion.
- But the overwhelming message of this poll is that four out of five respondents want some restrictions on the current legal permissiveness. Only 21 percent of all respondents agree with the law as it is now, permitting abortion without any restrictions.
Thus, when the pollsters asked about five circumstances in which abortion might be restricted, only 21 percent wanted no restriction on any of the five. Nearly 80 percent want at least one restriction, and thus oppose Roe vs. Wade.
Clearly, most "pro-lifers" are not absolutists. Only 10 percent of all respondents consider abortion wrong in all five circumstances. Most pro-life proponents would allow abortion in one or more circumstances.
For example, in the circumstance that "a woman's health is seriously endangered," 87 percent of respondents would permit legal abortion. This obviously includes most people who call themselves "anti-abortion" or "pro-life."
Similarly, in the circumstance that "there is a strong chance of a serious defect in the baby," 69 percent would agree to abortion; only 21 percent would not.
But by the time we reach the third circumstance, "if a family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children," the plurality swings to the anti-abortion side: 49 percent say no abortion, 43 percent say yes.
The fourth circumstance, if the woman "is not married and does not want to marry the man," leads to almost the same plurality against abortion: 50 percent say no abortion, 42 percent say yes.
In the fifth circumstance, "if the pregnancy interfered with work or education," abortion is rejected by virtually two-thirds of all respondents: 65 no, 26 yes.
Thus, the cumulative total of those who want to insert restriction into Roe vs. Wade goes like this:
Those who would allow abortion in only one or none of these circumstances: 27 percent. Those who would allow abortion in only two or fewer of these circumstances: 53 percent. Those who would allow abortion in only three or fewer of these circumstances: 65 percent. Those who would allow abortion in four or fewer circumstances: 80 percent. Only 21 percent would allow abortion in all five circumstances, as the law now does. (Numbers rounded.)
Thus, although the press sometimes writes as if there are only two possibilities - either totally in favor of abortion or totally opposed - these possibilities include only about 30 percent of respondents. The other 70 percent favor one to four restrictions on the present law.
Thus, the Supreme Court has ample support in public opinion for tightening Roe vs. Wade at least somewhat. Not that this will matter much. By tradition, the Court should have voted on this matter secretly just two days after the poll appeared. The public will not receive their verdict until their opinions are written and made public.
Still, the New York Times proposed that "time is on the side of advocates of legal abortion," because younger people are more in favor of keeping abortion legal than older people; and because those who know someone who has actually had an abortion are more favorable to the present law than those who do not.
However, as persons grow older, it is not certain that their youthful judgments will stand still. There is the countervailing evidence that 56 percent of married women believe that abortion should be permitted only in certain cases or not at all. Who ever heard a mother speak of the life in her womb as a fetus? Her usual description is "my baby."