By Nancy Belden
Americans have actively debated the abortion issue since the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade declared that the right to privacy extends to a woman's right to decide whether to have an abortion. At every turn, opponents and advocates of abortion rights have fought on the federal and state levels about restrictions to limit access to abortion — from posterwielding anti-abortion activists blocking clinic access to legislators writing laws requiring parental consent for teens seeking an abortion and outlawing certain medical procedures, among many other examples. Defenders of abortion rights have won some and lost some — including important Supreme Court decisions. For example, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey the Court struck down a Pennsylvania law required notification of the husband prior to an abortion, but left in place requirements for parental consent, informed consent, and a twenty-four hour waiting period. More recently in 2007, in Gonzalez v. Carhart, the Justices moved in a more conservative direction, leaving in place a federal ban on particular abortion procedures without allowing for an exception for women's health — even though in 2000 a more moderate Supreme Court had struck down a similar law.
Through the last 35 years, however, the support for legal abortion among the American public has not deteriorated. In 1973 after the Roe v. Wade decision, Louis Harris & Associates found 52% favored "the U.S. Supreme Court decision making abortion up to three months of pregnancy legal" and 41% opposed. Support and opposition has moved up and down marginally in the Harris polling dipping to 47% in favor and 44% opposed in 1974 and rising to 60% in favor and 37% opposed in 1979, before settling back down to 56% in favor/40% opposed in 2007 — virtually the same as in 1973.
Nancy Belden is a partner in the public opinion research and strategic communications firm Belden Russonello Strategists in Washington.