WASHINGTON For all the recent tumult over abortion, one thing has remained surprisingly stable: Americans have proved extremely consistent in their beliefs about the procedure and extremely conflicted in their views.
A solid majority long have felt that Roe v. Wade should be upheld. Yet most support at least some restrictions on when abortions can be performed. Most think having an abortion should be a personal choice. But they also think it is murder.
"Rock solid in its absolutely contradictory opinions" is how public opinion expert Karlyn Bowman describes the nation's mind-set.
If public opinion is stable, the political landscape is anything but.
The arrival of two new justices on the Supreme Court has stoked speculation about how abortion laws could be
affected. Also, there has been a flurry of action at the state level to ban or sharply restrict access to the procedure.
In 2005, states enacted 52 measures to restrict access to abortion, according to the private Guttmacher Institute, and more are pending. Most notably, South Dakota this month outlawed almost all abortions. Supporters hope the move will provoke a legal challenge that results in the new, more conservative Supreme Court overturning Roe.
Even with the new justices, however, there still are five votes to uphold the 1973 landmark ruling that established a woman's right to an abortion.
There is no evidence that all this activity is causing Americans to rethink their views.
"When we as a society make up our minds about something, as we have about abortion, most people tend to pull away from it," says Bowman, an American Enterprise Institute fellow who has studied abortion opinion over the decades. "Something really significant has to occur to bring Americans back into the debate."
An AP-Ipsos poll finds that most Americans are ensconced in what one policy analyst calls the "big mushy middle" on this issue.
In this latest poll, 19 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal in all cases; 16 percent said it should never be legal; 6 percent did not know. That left nearly three-fifths somewhere in between, believing abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances.
Dicing the same data a different way, 52 percent of those surveyed thought abortion should be legal in most or all cases; 43 percent said it should be illegal most or all of the time.
The survey, taken Feb. 28-March 2, found that men's and women's views were similar, although men were a little more likely to be undecided.
With slight shifts one way or another, this is about where Americans have been for decades.
"You have this very stable support for a principle, but a willingness to limit it in lots of circumstances over the last decade," said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard's School of Public Health.
If Americans are fairly set in what they think, the challenge for interest groups and politicians is to frame the debate in ways that will alter how people vote, whether they get involved and to whom they contribute money.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said recent activity has served as a wake-up call to supporters who had not felt that abortion rights were threatened. She said the organization has seen an increase in interest that could translate into a shift in votes in future elections.
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