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Pro-life advocates increase, but abortion remains complicated and divisive

Published: Wednesday, June 6 2012 6:26 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 24, 2011 file picture, anti-abortion and pro-choice activists stand next to each other in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington during a rally on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — A historic low 41 percent of Americans consider themselves pro-choice, while 50 percent of Americans say they're pro-life, a new Gallup poll shows.

Pro-lifers are celebrating, but the other side counters that a single statistic can't paint a realistic picture of the divided and nuanced feelings that Americans have about abortion. Those pro-choice proponents refer to the same Gallup poll, which notes that the public opinion about the morality and legality of abortion has "held steady" with 51 percent of Americans considering abortion morally wrong, and 38 percent believing it's morally acceptable — results that mirror the group's May 2011 survey and fall within seven points of each year's survey results since 2001.

"It is notable that while Americans' labeling of their position has changed, their fundamental views on the issue have not," notes Gallup's release of the data. But that doesn't stop politicians from talking about abortion. And in 2011 they said a lot.

Last year, state legislators introduced more than 1,100 reproductive health and rights-related provisions (several may be included in a single bill) — a jump from the 950 provisions introduced in 2010. Of those 1,100, 135 were put into place in 36 states, says the Guttmacher Institute.

Experts and advocates now believe that 2011 may not be the statistical anomaly previously thought, but rather an indication of continuing intensity among pro-life advocates who are boldly pushing for greater protections for the unborn.

Excited by the momentum of legislative successes and label-based popularity, pro-lifers also agree their growing influence will make the issue more polarized and contentious as pro-choice opponents push back against any assault on Roe v. Wade's version of constitutional protection for an abortion.

"Looking nationally, the decibel level around the issue of abortion is just shatteringly high," says Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for Guttmacher Institute, a progressive reproductive health research group. "It would be wonderful if we could bring down the debate to a level where we can talk about abortion even if we disagree."

Beyond labels

In 2011, 70 percent of Americans said that the term "pro-choice" described them somewhat or very well. Yet, nearly 66 percent of Americans also said the term "pro-life" described them somewhat or very well, which portrays an obvious, and seemingly irreconcilable, overlap.

Even within political parties, 52 percent of Republicans and tea partyers said the term "pro-choice" described them at least somewhat well, while 56 percent of Democrats said "pro-life" described them at least somewhat well, according to a report from the Public Religion Research Institute.

"Labels are always really complicated," says Caitlin Borgmann, associate professor at City University of New York School of Law and editor of the Reproductive Rights Prof Blog. "The pro-life label is sufficiently vague and appealing sounding that many members of the public will ascribe to it, even when they would support abortion in many instances. And it suggests that people who are pro-choice are anti-life, but pro-choice people would vigorously deny that, so I think the labels are problematic."

Labels often keep individuals in certain camps, where they focus on a single aspect of a multi-faceted discussion.

"People are pro-life except when it's complicated, basically," says Thad Hall, co-author of "Abortion Politics in Congress" and an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah. "If your daughter is raped, the position changes. If a girl is raped by her father, people generally say yes to abortion. It's not an easy issue. It means that politicians have an easy time playing around the edges with it, but it is hard to address the problem fully."

Because of such overlapping views, talking about abortion is best done one-on-one, says John Jansen, project coordinator for Pro-Life Action League, a pro-life activist group in Chicago. "I've always said you can't change someone's mind about abortion if you can't sit down and have a conversation with them and respect them as a person," he says.

Right now, the most productive conversations may be happening among young adults. Mary Spaulding Balch has attended the March for Life in Washington, D.C., for almost 40 years. When she started, the marchers had gray hair. Now many of them are wearing skinny jeans and talking about homework.

Spaulding Balch, state legislation director for National Right to Life, believes young people have been listening to the abortion debate while growing up in a world where it has always been legal and many of them conclude that Roe v. Wade was wrong.

"There is definitely a growing pro-life sentiment," says Jansen, who does youth outreach to teens. "Just about every kid in the country has seen a picture of their brother, sister, or cousin on ultrasound and you can't convince a kid that a baby in the womb is just tissue, a clump of cells."

So armed with young, energetic blood that often eschews labels, Jansen says pro-lifers are in it "for the long haul."

"We've been in it since 1973 and we show no signs of slowing down," he says. "We're not going to rest until abortion becomes not just illegal but unthinkable."

Legal motivations

During the 2010 elections, a wave of conservative and tea party candidates ran on promises that they would get the fiscal house in order and balance budgets.

Yet once in office, they almost immediately began working on social issues like abortion, says Nash, and in 2011, got 92 abortion-restricting laws enacted in dozens of states. (Laws may contain multiple provisions).

"In 2011, anti-choice lawmakers failed to live up to the promise they made to voters to focus on the economy," says NARAL Pro-Choice America's spokesman Ted Miller. "Instead, they attacked women's freedom and privacy at near-record levels. It's clear that this agenda is out of touch with our nation's values and priorities."

He pointed specifically to Virginia legislators, who passed a forced-ultrasound law opposed by nearly half of Virginians.

Normally, during a major election year like 2012, the abortion topic would have already faded as "state legislatures take a step back from social issues and focus instead on budgetary or transportation or education issues — what you might consider the bread-and-butter of state government," Nash says. "This year, there's been somewhat of a decrease in activity around abortion, but not the (normal) drop-off."

A combination of the increased number of conservative governors and state lawmakers and abortion restrictions already proposed has created "a more welcome environment for restrictions that push the edge of the envelope," Nash says.

In 2000, 13 states were considered by Guttmacher "hostile" to abortion rights. By 2011, that number was 26.

And Nash fears it may stay that way. "Once a law is enacted, it's difficult to repeal; liberalizing it is difficult," she says. "Once there are abortion restrictions, they tend to stay in place."

And there are more than just ideological reasons to keep proposing restrictions, says Ted Jelen, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and co-author of the book "Between Two Absolutes: Public Opinion and the Politics of Abortion."

Today's politicians are more likely to face a primary election against a member of their own party, so they must paint themselves as a stronger party player by proposing increasingly intense bills. That incentivizes "both challengers and incumbents in Republican districts to keep this (abortion) issue alive, even if it doesn't pass or it's ultimately ruled unconstitutional," Jelen says. "It's an electional advantage. The Republican side certainly has an interest in exaggerating this, in keeping it fairly simple and fairly polarized."

Hall believes some legislators propose bills they hope will actually reduce the abortion rate in the U.S., while others just put forth "symbolic legislation."

A growing schism

When surveys ask Americans to pick the most important societal issues, a very small segment always puts abortion at the top.

"Americans care about jobs, the economy, education," Hall says. "But interest groups are active in America; they push these kind of bills out."

But pro-life interest groups are growing a bit more divided on their approach, as one side presents incremental laws they believe will create slow, but sustainable changes, while the other side presents bills that will almost inevitably result in lawsuits and thus, they hope, challenges to Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, Jelen says.

Before any such bill could succeed there, however, Spaulding Balch says they have to be sure they'll have five justices on their side. Experts say Justice Anthony Kennedy is one of the most powerful men in the country, as it's his swing vote that both sides want on issues like this.

Parental consent — a law in 21 states — is one type of incremental law, which requires that one parent be aware and give consent for an abortion in girls younger than 18. Utah now requires counseling, then a 72-hour wait period before an abortion can be performed. South Dakota's similar law last year is being challenged in the courts.

In Arizona, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, bills explicitly ban sex-selective abortions, something the House on Thursday rejected. Before the vote, opponents warned it could prompt scrutiny of women seeking abortions based solely on their race.

Fetal pain bills, which exist in seven states, illicit similar heated responses, as they ban abortion at 20 weeks by relying on what some say is shaky medical evidence that a fetus can feel the pain of the procedure.

And Ohio has earned national attention for its "heartbeat bill," which passed in its House last June and is awaiting action by a Republican-controlled Senate. It would outlaw abortion after a heartbeat is detected, which can be as early as six weeks. Many of these bills are only possible because of technology, says Spaulding Balch. When Roe v. Wade passed, ultrasound didn't exist. Those images, so common now, have "changed everything," she says. "People have pictures of their grandchildren and children as early as a few weeks on their refrigerator. Ultrasound has opened a window to the womb."

That's why some abortion opponents support bills that require screens to be viewable, if desired, to a women who is having a pre-abortion ultrasound to date the pregnancy. Louisiana just passed a law that requires doctors to offer women the chance to hear the baby's heartbeat during a pre-abortion ultrasound. Women can refuse.

"This is an important part of informed consent, (and gives) the woman the same objective medical information that the doctor has," says the bill's author, Dorinda Bordlee, senior counsel at Bioethics Defense Fund, a public interest law firm that advocates for human life.

"So we're putting in reasonable measures of informed consent and giving women information ... before they go down this very, very painful road ... that may help them choose life."

But there's still disagreement over how to define life.

Controversial personhood amendments would declare that life beings at the moment of conception and thus criminalize abortion (including in cases of rape or incest yet excluding some medial emergencies), as well as some birth control, including IUDs. Such amendments have been proposed by legislators in a handful of states, and in others, advocates are gathering signatures to put the question on upcoming ballots. Mississippi rejected such a proposal in November.

Despite significant controversy, these bold proposals may actually be helpful, says Borgmann, because they "portray the (pro-life) movement for what it is."

"Anti-abortion is not about these incremental restrictions," she says. "They've always been steps on the way to the ultimate goal of outlawing all abortions." She says some are growing impatient with an incremental strategy.

But there's a winning strategy in the making, says Bordlee, who has litigated pro-life legislation for 17 years.

"Like in every effort, there are different schools of thought," she says. "Some are more aggressive than others, but we have to be careful that aggressive doesn't become reckless."

In her mind, the best laws will be both pro-women and pro-child.

"We really believe you can't separate the two," she says. "What is good for the woman is good for the baby, and we can find more humane ways to help women in unplanned pregnancies than put them through the trauma of abortion and death of their babies."

EMAIL: sisraelsen@desnews.com, lois@desnews.com

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