The abortion debate is a shape-shifter, its contours twisted by politics, culture, timing and the very language pollsters use when they ask people how they feel. So when the folks at Gallup announced that, for the first time, more Americans are pro-life than pro-choice, there were all kinds of ways to misunderstand what that means.
First and foremost are the labels, which cloud the issue by oversimplifying it that's why the advocates picked them. Most people are neither pro-choice nor pro-life, but both; we cherish life, we value choice, and we trade them off with great reluctance. Good luck explaining that to someone who is politely requesting a binary answer over the phone. (See more about abortion.)
But if we place any stock at all in those labels, something dramatic has happened. In 1995, when Gallup started asking the question, the split was 56-33 in favor of abortion rights. Now the lines have crossed, and 51% call themselves pro-life while only 42% say they are pro-choice. It's a shift that stretches past personal convictions and into legal constraints. For 35 years, a majority of Americans have wanted abortion to be, essentially, legal with limits. But the movement toward greater restraint is clear. In the mid-'90s, when pro-choice forces were especially dominant, only 12% believed abortion was always wrong; now that number has nearly doubled. At each extreme, slightly more people now believe abortion should be illegal under all circumstances (23%) than legal under all circumstances (22%). (See a TIME graphic on the growth of crisis pregnancy centers.)
So what has changed? Gallup attributes the new numbers to Republicans' purifying their views: 70% now call themselves pro-life, up 10 points in a year. But that's to be expected; when fewer people call themselves Republican, the party condenses into a pool of true believers. It's the people in the middle who are constantly weighing which restrictions are reasonable. A new Pew poll finds that while a majority of independents said abortion should be legal in most cases as recently as October, just 44% do so now. This may inspire some introspection on the part of political operatives in both parties who attribute the Republicans' present frailty to its orthodoxy on social issues. The GOP may have fielded some hapless messengers, but their message, on abortion at least, may be closer to the mainstream than Democrats care to acknowledge.
I think the numbers, inadequate and simplified though they may be, reflect deeper changes some generational, some legal, some technological. People under 30 are more opposed to abortion than those who are older, perhaps because their first baby pictures were often taken in utero. I also wonder if younger women are now sure enough of their sexual autonomy and their choices generally that they don't view limits on abortion as attacks on their overall freedom. The calculation of rights subtly shifts, and the fetus, as it develops, asserts its claim on the conscience.
Of course, anti-abortion activists have worked hard to make the issue more intimate. Nebraska is the latest state to debate what activists call "window to the womb" laws, which require that women be shown an ultrasound of the fetus before going ahead with an abortion. The Missouri Senate just passed a bill that would require doctors to talk about a fetus' development and its ability to feel pain. Opponents of "informed consent" laws that talk about fetal pain warn that doing so just causes the woman pain, and call it emotional blackmail. But there is no denying that the battleground has shifted. (Read "The Grass-Roots Abortion War.")
As, most obviously, has the political context. Abortion has forever been blown by electoral trade winds; when the right was in charge, people feared the return of coat hangers in back alleys. Now that the left leads, they fear abortion on demand. The very meaning of the labels adjusts; calling yourself pro-choice at a time when a liberal Democratic President and allies in Congress are lifting abortion restraints may imply no qualms at all, and that's not where most people are.
The President appeared to understand this when he spoke at Notre Dame's commencement, addressing the possibility of common ground and the need for "open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words." Protesters were gathered outside; the issue of a Catholic university honoring a pro-choice President had roiled the campus for weeks. But rather than defend his position on the issue or even explain it, Obama talked about how to talk about it. "I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away," he said. "Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature." (See the top 10 commencement speeches of all time.)
You can tell Obama isn't interested in a culture war. He has left gay marriage to the states, dropped family-planning money from the stimulus bill, refused to fund needle-exchange programs and said he wants to "tamp down some of the anger" surrounding the abortion debate. He is inviting all sides to the White House to discuss ways to reduce the number of abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies.
My theory? People always apply the brakes to whichever side has the momentum. The stakes are too high, the pain too private, whatever decision a woman makes, to see the issue treated as an ideological toy or fundraising tool. Obama got in trouble in his talk last August with Rick Warren for saying that the question of when life begins was "above my pay grade." But just because he was glib doesn't mean he was wrong.