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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.
Opening Arguments

Life and death

The abortion debate seems pointless and futile because a majority of Americans don't agree with the most zealous advocatesd of either side:

The media response to Davis’ filibuster, which dominated Twitter and other social media last Tuesday, ran to the extremes that we’ve come to expect in any discussion of supposedly divisive social issues. Depending on your point of view, Davis is either a brave hero fighting for women everywhere or the second coming of Kermit Gosnell, the notorious Philadelphia doctor recently found guilty of murdering babies.

So, despite decades of polling data showing that large majorities of Americans believe abortion should be legal under some circumstances, you could be excused for thinking there are only two possible positions when it comes to terminating pregnancies: Either all abortions should be allowed or none should be.

Yet the most striking thing about attitudes toward abortion is how stable they’ve been over the 40 years since Roe v. Wade. Gallup has been tracking public sentiment on the matter since 1975, when 22 percent of Americans agreed that abortion should be illegal under any circumstances and 21 percent believed it should be legal under any circumstances. Those numbers are now 18 percent and 28 percent respectively. In 1975, 54 percent believed abortion “should be legal only under certain circumstances.” The number is now 52 percent and has never gone above 61 percent or below 48 percent. Over the past 15 years, the number of Americans calling themselves “pro-life” and “pro-choice” has narrowed to a few points, with 48 percent identifying as pro-choice and 44 percent as pro-life (in 2011, those figures were basically flipped).

Part of the headline on this post is "our stupid abortion debate," which I think may be overstating the case a little. On issues as serious as this (and this is literally a life-and-death one), people are always inclined to take an extreme position, not necessarily because deep down they really think there should never be an abortion for any reason or that there is never a reason to deny one, but because they fear the "give 'em an inch" phenomenon. Each side knows the other is trying to gain as much ground as possible, so both push back with the most extreme positions.

I was just thinking it was interesting that we don't seem to be this black-and-white on another life-or-death issue -- capital punishment. There are some who totally oppose any death sentences and some who'd like to see them imposed a lot more, but they don't seem to dominate the debate the way the polar opposites do in the case of abortion. Most people seem comfortable in the middle and accept the idea that some of the worst criminals should be executed in certain circumstances but that we shouldn't casually accept it as a common criminal justice tool. And in that middle is where most of the debate seems to reside.