September 29, 2008

Americans and Abortion: An Overview

More than 35 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Roe v. Wade (1973) decision granted a woman the constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy, abortion remains a controversial issue. Indeed, although the frequency of abortions in the U.S. has dropped to its lowest point since 1974, the debate over abortion continues to play a prominent role in state and federal politics.

Although Roe prohibited states from banning abortion until late in a woman’s pregnancy, subsequent high court rulings allowed states more power to regulate the procedure. Today, there is an uneven patchwork of abortion laws around the country. For example, while 17 states provide public funding for all or most abortions that are deemed medically necessary, 28 states require doctors to provide a woman with some form of counseling about the risks of abortion and 24 states oblige a woman to complete a waiting period before having an abortion.

In this research package

Americans and Abortion
An overview of the abortion debate in America.

Abortion and the Supreme Court
The constitutional dimensions of the abortion debate.

Public Opinion on Abortion
Polls conducted in 2009 found fewer Americans expressing support for abortion than in previous years.

Abortion Around the World
Abortion is as controversial abroad as it is in the United States.

Religious Groups’ Official Positions on Abortion
A breakdown of 17 major religious groups’ views on abortion.

In the realm of public opinion, Americans remain divided on legalized abortion, with 47% expressing support for legalized abortion and 44% expressing opposition, according to two major surveys conducted in 2009. (See Support for Abortion Slips.) Furthermore, many groups – from women’s rights organizations to socially conservative religious groups – have shown little appetite for compromise. Abortion rights opponents, or “pro-life” advocates, argue that life begins at conception and consider abortion tantamount to homicide. (See Fundamental Dignity at Every Stage of Life: An Argument Against Abortion Rights Featuring the Rev. J. Daniel Mindling.) Abortion rights supporters, or “pro-choice” advocates, maintain that women have an absolute right to decide what happens to their bodies – sometimes without any restrictions. (See Pro-Choice Does Not Mean Pro-Abortion: An Argument for Abortion Rights Featuring the Rev. Carlton Veazey.)

The variety in opinion on the issue is reflected in the diverse views of religious groups. For example, the Roman Catholic Church opposes abortion under any circumstances, while traditional Jewish teachings sanction abortion as a means of safeguarding the life and well-being of the mother. Other groups stop short of condemning the procedure and ask believers to consider religious teachings and personal faith in deciding whether to have an abortion. (See Religious Groups’ Official Positions on Abortion.)

The seeds of today’s abortion debate were sown long before the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. In colonial times, abortion before “quickening” – the phrase then used to describe the first perceptible fetal movement – was considered a personal matter and was not restricted by law. But in the mid-1800s several states began outlawing the procedure for religious and moral reasons. By the early 20th century almost all states had bans making it a criminal offense to perform or attempt an abortion at any point during pregnancy, although some states continued to allow the procedure when it was necessary to save a woman’s life.

But over the next few decades there was a concerted push for greater political and sexual freedom for women. Momentum for changes in anti-abortion laws reached a peak during the women’s rights movement of the 1960s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, 13 states permitted abortion in cases in which a woman’s health was at risk, in cases of rape or incest, or in cases in which the fetus suffered from a severe defect. Four states – Alaska, Hawaii, New York and Washington – went further, allowing a woman to receive an abortion whenever she and her doctor decided it was needed.

Most states, however, continued to allow the procedure only in life-threatening situations. As a result, many women seeking abortions either traveled to countries where the procedure was legal or resorted to illegal, self-induced – and sometimes deadly – methods of terminating their pregnancies. (See Abortion Laws Around the World.)

In 1973, the legal landscape changed dramatically when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade. By giving a woman the constitutional right to an abortion, the justices overturned all state laws prohibiting the procedure and limited state regulation to the period late in a pregnancy when a fetus can survive outside the womb. Even then, the court reasoned, states must make an exception when a doctor deemed an abortion necessary to protect the mother’s life or health.

But far from quelling the abortion debate, the Roe decision fueled a political and social firestorm that is still raging. Indeed, in the years following Roe, states repeatedly tested the decision’s boundaries by passing laws that could make it difficult for some women to have abortions. (See States Probe Limits of Abortion Policy at Stateline.org.) Many of these earlier laws were struck down by lower federal courts or the Supreme Court. But in recent years, the high court has allowed states more power in regulating abortion, including a late-term procedure known as partial-birth abortion or dilation and extraction (D&X). (See A History of Key Abortion Rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Despite the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision to uphold the federal partial-birth abortion ban, experts say that for now, a majority of the current Supreme Court justices remain likely to uphold Roe v. Wade. But if a future court were to overturn Roe, the decision could effectively return the issue to state courts. In that case, abortion would likely remain legal in more socially liberal states of the Northeast and West Coast and would likely be restricted in many of the more socially conservative states of the South and Midwest.

This report was written by Christine Vestal, Staff Writer, Stateline.org.

Photo credit: Corbis