A Golden Opportunity to Move Beyond the Legacy of Roe v. Wade

by Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest fraternal organization of Catholic laymen, and a New York Times best-selling author.

The American people no longer support the regime of Roe v. Wade. That’s not a controversial statement; it’s simply true.

And though – because of the abortion debate – the headlines for weeks were filled with the drama that unfolded over the propriety of President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame, there was an even bigger – if less noticed – story: the growing consensus among Americans on abortion, and its relationship to a looming decision that could affect abortion law for decades.

Roe v. Wade, which has been interpreted to allow abortion without restriction, is at odds with the overwhelming majority of Americans according to several recent public opinion polls. And in light of this, as the president and Senate consider an appointment to the Supreme Court, they should not the waste the chance to embrace a growing American consensus by moving away from the absolutist position of Ro and its increasingly few adherents.

Two polls in the last few weeks – one by Pew, the other by Gallup – show far more consensus on the issue than the political rhetoric would lead us to believe.Pew found that only 18% favored legalized abortion “in all cases.” 28% said it should be legal in “most cases,” 28% said it should be “illegal in most cases,” and 16% said it should be illegal in all cases. 

In other words, 72% of Americans are against the abortion on demand regime that followed Roe, while only 18% are in favor of it.

The even more recent Gallup survey grabbed headlines by finding that a majority of Americans now identify as “pro-life.” Furthermore, it found that while 22% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in any circumstance, most do not. 23% believe it should be illegal in every circumstance, and 53% believe it should be legal “only under certain circumstances.”

The totals: 75% of Americans don’t agree with the Roe regime, while only 22% of those polled do agree.

Though the debate has been framed in terms of an all or nothing issue, the fact is – as these polls show – Americans by a more than 3:1 margin, want to move away from Roe and want some restrictions on abortion. One of the most detailed surveys of Americans’ attitudes on abortion was the Knights of Columbus-Marist poll conducted in October 2008. Taken while those identifying as “pro-choice” held a slight advantage over those who called themselves “pro-life,” in hindsight, that poll accurately predicted the growing consensus we see today on abortion by asking very specific questions about the respondents’ views.

By giving respondents a greater variety of options than most polls on the subject, here’s what the KofC-Marist poll found: Only 8% of Americans agreed with abortion “any time during a pregnancy,” and another 8% supported abortion during the first six months of pregnancy. But 84% of Americans wanted more significant restrictions than that. 24% wanted abortion limited to the first three months.

The greatest number, 32%, wanted to limit abortion to cases of rape, incest, or saving the life of the mother, while another 15% wanted to limit abortion only to saving the life of the mother. Finally, 13% said abortion “should never be permitted.”

As the president and Senate consider a replacement for David Souter, they will be pressured by a vocal minority to pick someone who passes a pro-Roe litmus test. Politically and legally – let alone ethically – that is not the right move.

As the plans to fill the Souter vacancy on the Supreme Court take shape, the president and Senate should consider the will of the people and the integrity of the constitution – as well as political common sense – over narrow interest group politics. If they do, the vast majority of the American people will be on their side.

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