In the 30 years since the Supreme Court legalized abortion, one aspect of the debate has hardly changed: the large swath of Americans who hold a middle position between the polarizing prochoice and prolife positions.
According to Gallup, which has polled on abortion since 1975, a majority of Americans consistently falls in the middle category of supporting legal abortion with certain restrictions (as opposed to believing abortion should be legal under any circumstances or illegal in all circumstances).
Yet for three decades, the attention has been on the extremes. Their voices and actions have unnecessarily taken a matter of individual conscience and made it a matter of party and activist politics. Some activists falsely equate prochoice with feminism. Others - a few, radicalized prolife advocates - have murdered doctors who perform abortions and bombed clinics.
The polarization could intensify as the prochoice side sounds the alarm that now, unlike at its 25th anniversary in 1998, the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade faces a real danger of being overturned. With Republican control of Congress and the White House, and with Supreme Court vacancies on the horizon, the political fire wall protecting legalized abortion has been knocked down, they argue.
In addition, the prolife side, having successfully pushed restrictions such as waiting periods in dozens of states, is gearing up in Washington. It plans to push at least four anti-abortion bills through Congress.
A refreshing and needed change would be to shift the abortion focus to where most Americans stand - not wanting to overturn Roe v. Wade, yet troubled by the high number of abortions. Fundamentally, a woman, not the government, should make her own reproductive choices.
It's encouraging that the abortion rate has been steadily dropping. It peaked, according to the Guttmacher Institute, in 1981, at 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. In 2000, the rate was 21.3 abortions per 1,000 women in that age bracket.
Although that's the lowest rate since 1974, it's still 1.31 million abortions out of a population of some 280 million, and one of the highest abortion rates in the industrialized West.
The cause of the drop, apparently, lies in more use of contraception and new kinds of birth control, and greater abstinence. But these and other reasons also are hotly debated, and a greater effort must be made to pin down the causes behind this positive trend, and support what works.
At the same time, Americans should be wary of potential changes in federal law that come in the guise of moderation yet would work against Roe v. Wade.
For instance, the proposed Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which the prolife camp is pushing in Congress, would make it an additional offense to kill or injure a fetus during a federal crime.
While the Supreme Court did rule that states may restrict or ban abortions when a fetus could be viable outside the womb (considered to be 22 to 26 weeks), it shied away from establishing a fetus as a person. Instead, the court's Roe v. Wade ruling was based on a constitutionally implied right to privacy, which left the agonizing choice of abortion up to the woman.
Precedent has been building in establishing "rights" for the unborn, with 26 states passing similar laws to the proposed Unborn Victims of Violence Act, and the White House, by executive order, making the unborn eligible for health insurance. While this trend does not undermine Roe v. Wade directly, it builds competing law that, in the end, could cause the Supreme Court to weigh protecting a woman's right against new laws establishing legal protections for the unborn.
What contributes to the intensity of debate in this country is that abortion law has essentially been set by the court. In Europe, it has been set legislatively and presumably reflects the will of the people. The prolife camp recognizes this and is trying to change a constitutional ruling through state legislatures and Congress.
Most Americans do not want to return to illegal, back-street abortion, but they also would like abortions to become rare. This is the time to redouble efforts to reduce unwanted pregnancies so that fewer women have to confront such a choice.