Texas abortion vote mirrors Americans' divided view

Texas lawmakers have passed a restrictive abortion law that could sharply reduce the number of clinics. Over the years, the sharply divided public view has become more conservative.

Eric Gay/AP
An abortion rights protester struggles with Texas state troopers in the Texas Senate gallery as the Senate debates an abortion bill, Friday, July 12, 2013, in Austin, Texas. The bill would require doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, only allow abortions in surgical centers, dictate when abortion pills are taken and ban abortions after 20 weeks.

Advocates on both sides of the contentious abortion debate tend to think they have most Americans – if not God – on their side. It’s been that way since before the US Supreme Court legalized abortion 40 years ago in Roe v. Wade.

The raucous vote in the Texas Senate Friday night came on a bill that will ban abortions after 20 weeks with very few exceptions, require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, and require all abortions to take place in surgical centers.

Abortion-rights advocates say it will reduce the number of abortion clinics in the state from 42 to just five, making it more difficult for women to get the medical procedure safely.

Where do Americans stand on such restrictions to a procedure many have come to see as routine?

The latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll shows that a plurality of Americans (48-44 percent) in fact supports a ban on late abortions, defined here as later than 20 weeks into a pregnancy.

As put to those surveyed by phone, the question was:

“As you may know, the US House of Representatives recently approved legislation that would ban virtually all abortions nationwide after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of rape and incest that are reported to authorities. Would you support or oppose such legislation?”

As part of the question, and in an order that varied, respondents were told: “Supporters say the legislation is necessary because they believe a fetus can feel pain at that point of the pregnancy” and “Opponents say it undermines the right to abortion that the US Supreme Court established in 1973.”

Response by political party was diametrically opposite: 59 percent of Republicans favor the restriction, 59 percent of Democrats are opposed. Significantly, a majority of Independents (53 percent) joined Republicans favoring a strict limit on most abortions beyond 20 weeks.

“Overall, the survey suggests that the 20-week abortion measure fractures some of the modern Democratic coalition,” writes National Journal’s Shane Goldmacher. For example, women are more likely to favor the 20-week restriction than men (50-46 percent).

Gallup sees the trend moving from abortion rights to anti-abortion.

In 1996, according to Gallup, 56 percent of those surveyed considered themselves “pro-choice” and 33 percent identified as “pro-life.” As of this year, the balance had shifted to “pro-life” (48-45 percent).

A clear majority – 61 percent – say abortion should be legal during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. But that number plummets to 27 percent for the second trimester, Gallup found last December. Clear majorities favor a mandated 24-hour waiting period and parental consent for girls younger than 18.

Writing in the New York Times over the weekend, Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt notes that abortion differs from other hot-button social issues such as gun control, immigration, or same-sex marriage.

“Abortion is the relatively rare issue in which the cliché is true: public opinion does actually rest about midway between the parties’ platforms,” writes Mr. Leonhardt. “Most Americans … believe that women should have control over their bodies and also that an abortion is akin to a death. Where they struggle is in deciding when each principle deserves to take priority.”

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