Polls continue to shift on abortion, after the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade with Dobbs in June. Democrats – including friends of mine – are sure the public is pro-Roe and anti-Dobbs, while Conservatives – other friends – see the mood as pro-life. A deep dive shows a split nation, polls confounded by nuance and exceptions. But they miss the point: Abortion is not about polls.
Having written about the nation’s views before Dobbs, after the leak, after the decision – recently pointing out the odd disparity in federal prosecutions for pro- and anti-abortion violence, a quick review of polls may be in order. In order, too, is remembering that Dobbs was chiefly a victory for federalism, meaning states’ rights, not a re-litigation of abortion.
On one side, the pro-life view highlights key facts, beyond science and law, reaching to the heart of the question – is abortion moral? In May 2021, the nation was almost evenly split on that question.
By May 2022, digging deeper, Pew reported: “Overall, just seven percent of all U.S. adults say abortion is morally acceptable in all cases,” while “13 percent say it is morally wrong in all cases,” and a third say it “is morally wrong in most cases, while … 24 percent say it is morally acceptable most of the time.” Chillingly, a fifth who “do not consider abortion a moral issue.”
What do we make of that? Are we pro-life or pro-abortion? While public views change, and may tip hard one way or the other, science (saving children earlier and earlier in a pregnancy) and Dobbs both push toward reducing abortions – for birth control, convenience, or gender choice.
Science and Dobbs also offer moral arguments for ending abortions, since the question of morality reduces to human life and when it begins. If we can detect human life earlier, accept a human heart and brain mean a person, the moral imperative becomes protecting that life.
Some in the Democratic Party have tried to ignore or redefine morality, which is like redefining where the sun rises (which does not change where it rises). Imagining a society can long endure without moral compass (or not caring), they push laws and bills that permit (by redefining terms or leaving them undefined) ending life in the third trimester, 9th month, and at birth.
New York’s 2019 pro-abortion law, for example, permitted anyone to perform an abortion, decriminalized the act, redefined the timeframe to include abortion for an undefined “health” need (without limit, including mental health), removed infant medical protections, and left “viability” undefined (permitting abortion for imperfections), thus – effectively – permits abortion to last day of term.
Interestingly, even defenders of that law acknowledge the fact. A public battle over what undefined terms mean rages, but the real takeaway for most legal and moral scholars is these laws open the door to abortion without limit, since defenders allow open redefinition.
To those who see clear evidence of human life in the womb, who fear the error of killing a child, who wish to preserve their own souls against grave error, these pieces of legislation are hard to read, morally indefensible, almost inconceivable – but the laws do exist.
Ironically, the Dobbs case, while overturning a poorly reasoned, judicially unsustainable idea – that the US Constitution contains a right to abortion – actually empowers states, including New York and California, to permit abortion at birth, until an unborn child’s rights are recognized.
So, what does all this mean? Answering that question – as friends have recently tutored me – tends to be hard if we turn to polls, including which matter most which should be trusted, what they say, and what they mean.
Maybe the issue is not one, in the end, that should be decided by polls. Maybe polls, whatever they say, or whatever we want them to say, or whatever we think they say – are irrelevant.
Maybe science, law, and a deep dive into the quiet of our own beating hearts, a journey to the center of our own storm-tossed souls, to that hard-to-reach, nearly inaccessible part of who we are – the part that dares ponder “what if …” – maybe that is where we will find the answer.
For sure, if we do not look there, choosing instead to wrestle the meaning of polls, we sidestep the only real answer to a plainly moral question. Polls will not give us that answer, whatever they say about what others think and feel, about our nation and whether we are advancing or retreating in collective conscience.
No, the real issue – the one people want most not to talk about – is what happens inside you, inside your own conscience – that rare, supremely human intersection of your heart, soul, and brain which makes you who you are, who you have always been – and when … did that begin?