WASHINGTON — The Senate vote this week to ban so-called "partial-birth abortions" shows how profoundly the abortion debate has shifted.
Only four years ago, Congress was considering a Freedom of Choice Act, a bill designed to codify the abortion rights embodied in the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. The focus of attention was on the woman, not the baby or fetus.
Today the focus has reversed as anti-abortion forces have seized the rhetorical high ground. They have put a gruesome, though rare, abortion procedure under klieg lights. They have persuaded the powerful American Medical Association, for the first time, to back a ban on a type of abortion.
With abortion foes now the majority in Congress, it is only the promised presidential veto that keeps the ban from being enacted. Tuesday's Senate vote was the closest anti-abortion forces have come on this issue - getting 64 votes - to winning a veto-proof majority, which is 67 votes. But a larger question looms: Have Washington's pyrotechnics affected public opinion on abortion?
This is ultimately more important than how people view so-called partial-birth abortion, a late-term procedure that's rarely used. Ninety-nine percent of abortions take place before 20 weeks of gestation, which is before the point that the fetus can survive outside the womb.
Advocates of the partial-birth ban say they have made crucial progress in capturing public attention and causing nonactivists to think about what happens to the baby during an abortion.
"You can't put things on the cover of major newspapers and say people are not informed," says Helen Alvar, spokeswoman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' pro-life office.
Some abortion-rights advocates also fear they've lost ground on overall support for abortion. In a recent release, the American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project stated that "anti-choice groups have waged an inflammatory campaign that has weakened public support for abortion rights in general."
When asked to provide evidence that public support had weakened, a spokeswoman for the group said that was just a "general impression."
But Karlyn Bowman, a nonpartisan expert on public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, says there is no empirical evidence that overall attitudes on abortion have shifted over the long term. "This is one of the areas where you see rock stability in public attitudes for virtually 20 years," says Ms. Bowman.
Pollsters have found the public does support the proposed ban on partial-birth abortions, the term critics of the procedure use, but such polls don't indicate how much people have actually thought about the issue.
People are deeply conflicted about abortion. "They're saying, at the same time, it's murder and it should be a choice between a woman and her doctor," says Bowman.
"When the public tends to believe contradictory things, they tend to pull away from the debate. Then you leave the debate to the activists who make a lot of noise and suggest on both sides they're swaying people one way or the other. But it's really not true."
The Wirthlin polling firm, which does work for the National Right to Life Committee, suggests evidence to the contrary. The firm found that between 1995 and 1996, support for "pro-life positions" increased 5 points to 59 percent, while support for "pro-choice positions" decreased 3 points to 39 percent. A Wirthlin spokesman says the attention to partial-birth abortion is likely behind that shift.
Ultimately, the only opinion that matters is that of the nine justices on the Supreme Court. And for now, the liberal standards of Roe hold.
But even though the justices rule based on constitutional interpretation, they are not immune from public opinion. So if overall opinion were to shift dramatically away from the right to abortion - especially in the first trimester - pro-choice advocates could face a significant challenge.
Meanwhile, abortion-rights advocates say the next step is to work on electing more pro-choice candidates to Congress in 1998. As long as abortion foes control the Capitol, anti-abortion measures will keep coming up and capturing media attention, they say.
From the pro-life side, Alvar says she will keep working to add senators to her side on partial-birth: "I never ever give up on conscience."