After 25 Years, Public Still of Two Minds on Abortion


Carey Goldberg and Janet Elder



New York Times Service

NEW YORK - Twenty-five years and nearly 30 million abortions after the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision, the American public still largely supports legalized abortion but says it should be harder to get and less readily chosen, the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll shows.

At base, the country remains irreconcilably riven over what many consider the most divisive American issue since slavery, with half the population considering abortion murder, the poll found.

Despite a quarter-century of lobbying, debating and protesting by the camps that call themselves "pro-choice" and "pro-life," that schism has remained virtually unaltered.

But beneath that basic divide, public opinion has shifted notably away from general acceptance of legal abortion and toward an evolving center of gravity: a more nuanced, conditional acceptance that some call a "permit but discourage" model.

Almost half of those polled said it was too easy to get an abortion these days. Public support for legal abortion plummets from 61 percent if it is performed in the first three months of a woman's pregnancy to only 15 percent in the second three months. And a few reasons sometimes given for choosing abortion have become less persuasive.

In 1989, for example, when people were asked whether a pregnant woman should be able to get a legal abortion if her pregnancy would force her to interrupt her career, 37 percent said yes and 56 percent said no; in 1998, only 25 percent said yes and 70 percent said no.

Similarly, in 1989, 48 percent thought an interrupted education was enough to justify a teenage girl's abortion; that dropped to 42 percent this year.

Support remained overwhelming, however, for women who sought abortions because they had been raped, their health was endangered, or there was a strong chance of a defect in the baby.

The survey, which was the first New York Times/CBS News Poll devoted to abortion since 1989, was based on telephone interviews with 1,101 people around the country and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Overall, since 1989 supporters of generally available legal abortion have slipped to 32 percent from 40 percent and the ranks of those who say it should available but stricter have increased to 45 percent from 40 percent. The contingent that said abortion should not be permitted comprised 18 percent in 1989 and is now at 22 percent.

The public's attitude toward abortion largely lines up with President Bill Clinton's phrase that abortions should be "safe, legal and rare," said Elizabeth Adell Cook, a professor of government at the University of Maryland and co-author of "Between Two Absolutes," an analysis of public opinion on abortion.

Studies indicate an emerging consensus that "it should be allowed under some circumstances but it isn't to be taken too lightly." Ms. Cook said. "People think if there is a serious enough reason, it's O.K., but if they don't think the reason is compelling enough, they think it's wrong."

That willingness to judge applies even close to home, the poll found. Among the 58 percent of respondents who said someone they knew well had undergone an abortion, 30 percent said they thought it was the right thing to do, but 24 percent said they believed it was wrong.

At work is the search for a compromise between two views - that abortion is murder and that it is a woman's right - that seem absolutely contradictory and yet so powerful that they often co-exist within the same person,

In responses so paradoxical that they astound even experts like Ms. Cook, one third of the poll's respondents who said they considered abortion to be murder also agreed that abortion is sometimes the best course in a bad situation.

In general, the abortion issue seems to have only limited political resonance these days. Just over half the respondents said they did not think it necessary to know a public official's position on abortion.

Such indications that abortion is becoming less of a political issue and more of a private, moral one jibe with the belief expressed by nearly 60 percent of those polled that the government should stay out of decisions on whether abortion should be legal.