Roe v. Wade at 40: a new surge in support for abortion rights

According to one poll, a majority of Americans now support abortion in all or most cases – a result, perhaps, of the many anti-abortion measures enacted by states in recent years.

By , Correspondent

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    Abortion rights advocates shout during a rally in Capitol Square in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Jan. 22, marking the 40th anniversary Tuesday of the landmark US Supreme Court ruling on abortion known as Roe v. Wade.
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As if to further bolster the argument that liberalism is having a resurgence in the United States, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that, for the first time ever, a majority of Americans – 54 percent – now believe abortion should be legal all or most of the time. Even more broadly, a full 70 percent believe that Roe v. Wade – the controversial decision that, 40 years ago, guaranteed a woman's right to an abortion, at least in the first trimester of pregnancy – should not be overturned.

This is historic: Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey along with Democratic pollster Peter Hart, told NBC's First Read that the results represent "profound changes." He credited, in part, the 2012 presidential campaign, in which women's issues were heavily promoted by the Obama campaign, and a number of Republican Senate candidates unintentionally brought them to the fore with ill-considered comments about abortion and rape.

But ironically, another reason for the overall shift in favor of abortion rights may be the legislative successes of anti-abortion advocates, which have led to a record number of restrictions being placed on abortion at the state level over the past few years.

Recommended: Roe v. Wade at 40: Six questions about abortion rights

According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, 42 anti-abortion measures were enacted in the states in 2012 – including bans on abortion after 20 weeks, bans on state funding for Planned Parenthood, and ultrasound requirements for those seeking abortions. By contrast, only eight measures supporting abortion rights were enacted.

Some of those anti-abortion measures received a lot of national media attention – you may recall the furious discussions last spring of "transvaginal probes," an ultrasound method originally considered as part of Virginia's new law, though that requirement was ultimately discarded in favor of less-invasive methods.

Less widely discussed, but perhaps even more striking, is the diminishing number of abortion clinics now operating in many states. At least four states are down to just a single clinic, and Mississippi could soon become the first state with no abortion provider at all.

Taken together, these state-level victories for the anti-abortion side, and the heavy publicity they received during the 2012 campaign cycle, may have actually undercut support for overturning Roe v. Wade, by giving those who saw themselves as in the middle on the issue – perhaps wanting some restrictions on abortion, but not an outright ban – a sense that things had gone far enough. And for those already supporting abortion rights, but in a lukewarm kind of way, it may have constituted a wake-up call.  

Last month, when NARAL's president, Nancy Keenan,   announced that she was stepping down, she specifically cited the need to bring more young women into the movement, saying that while the so-called "Millennial generation" tends to be pro-choice, abortion "isn't on the top of their list of issues that they're concerned about." Keenan specifically cited an "intensity gap," with the minority that opposes abortion much more likely to see it as a "very important" issue.

Polling indicates there's been an education gap, as well: According to a recent Pew survey, only 44 percent of those under the age of 30 knew that Roe v. Wade was about abortion. And writing in The Nation, Katha Pollitt notes that while recent polling has shown that more people prefer to call themselves "pro-life" than "pro-choice," research has also found that some 35 percent of those choosing the "pro-life" label say they support Roe v. Wade.

The question is whether the growing restrictions placed on abortion in recent years have had the unintentional effect of pushing voters in the other direction. In the 40 years since Roe v. Wade was decided, the political momentum has often seemed to be on the side of anti-abortion activists, who were able to characterize their efforts as trying to rein in what they saw as the Supreme Court's overreach. But lately, with so many legislative victories on their side, it's the abortion-rights folks who've been able to argue the pendulum needs to swing back toward the middle. And that may be having an impact.

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