And going strictly by the numbers, it may not look like public opinion on abortion has changed very much over the years. In April 1975, according to Gallup, 21 percent of Americans thought abortion should be legal under all circumstances and 22 percent thought it should be illegal under all circumstances. In the early nineties, there was a brief spell where a full third of Americans believed abortion should always be legal. That started to slide midway through the Clinton years, and by May of this year, we were almost exactly where we started in 1975: 22 percent saying always legal and 23 saying always illegal.
But that downward trajectory could continue. If forced to choose, Americans today are far more eager to label themselves “pro-life” than they were a dozen years ago. The youngest generation of voters—those between the ages of 18 and 29, and therefore most likely to need an abortion—is the most pro-life to come along since the generation born during the Great Depression, according to Michael D. Hais and Morley Winograd, authors of Millennial Makeover, who got granular data on the subject from Pew Research Center. Crisis Pregnancy Centers, dedicated to persuading women to continue their pregnancies, now outnumber the country’s abortion providers, who themselves are a rapidly aging group (two-thirds are over 50, according to a National Abortion Federation study from 2002). In the wake of the murder of Dr. George Tiller this year, the Senate couldn’t even pass a resolution condemning violence against abortion providers.
Abortion counselors will also tell you that the stigma attached to the procedure is worse than it’s been in years. “When I started as a patient advocate in Ohio in 1996,” says Jeannie Ludlow, a professor at Eastern Illinois University who has written a great deal about abortion, “what I mostly saw were women who were thinking about abortion in individual ways—this is what’s going on in my life, this is what I’m thinking I should do. But by the time I left in 2008, our patients would be saying all that and ‘Oh, and I know I’m going to feel bad for the rest of my life,’ even if they seemed perfectly sure of their choice.”
One could say, in a sense, that the pro-choice movement has always had the harder job. The choice argument is an analytical one, grounded in theories of privacy and the rights of the mother; the pro-life side has the case with instant visceral and emotional appeal: This is life we’re talking about. Things were also bound to get worse when the national tide turned Democratic; whenever a pro-choice person occupies the White House, those who fret about the issue stop giving money to NARAL and the pro-life side reasserts itself (indeed, says Cecile Richards, the head of Planned Parenthood, protests at her clinics are up, up, up).
But these explanations alone can’t fully account for the shift in tide. Rather, it’s a confluence of things—starting, I’d argue, with technological advances. Generally, science is the friend of progressive political causes. Not this one. As fetal ultrasound technology improved during the nineties, abortion providers, conditioned to reassure patients that the fetus was merely tissue, found it much harder to do so once their patients were staring at images that looked so lifelike. Banking on the emotional power of seeing a beating heart on a television screen—many in the pro-life movement refer to sonograms as “God’s window”—organizations like Focus on the Family began to use this technology to their advantage, sending ultrasound machines to Crisis Pregnancy Centers in an initiative taglined “Revealing Life to Save Life.”
Perhaps just as important, the pro-life movement got very shrewd about its politics, realizing that it had a highly conflicted electorate on its hands. As William Saletan shows with depressing cogency in Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, the pro-choice movement was never going to win its case on the basis of women’s rights. Men, especially southern white men, didn’t care. The most persuasive argument it had was an old American standby: The government has no right meddling in your business. It didn’t take long for the pro-life movement to use this argument to its own advantage, realizing that if the public didn’t like the government making decisions about abortions, it could force pro-choice legislators to admit that the public wouldn’t like the government funding them either. They were right. Soon, pro-choice candidates were running away from public funding and toward parental consent—another constraint the public overwhelmingly prefers, as well as 24-hour waiting periods—and a more libertarian Supreme Court upheld these restrictions in landmark cases in 1989 and 1992.
Yet that still wasn’t the worst of it. Until the mid-nineties, the political debate over abortion remained mostly in the theoretical realm, with the role of government at its center. Had it stayed there, it’s possible we’d be in a different place today. But in late 1995, a Florida Republican congressman named Charles Canady had a stroke of insight that would shift it to the realm of both the metaphysical and brutally physical, which is precisely where the pro-life movement wanted it all along. On the floor of the House, he introduced a bill that would ban so-called “partial-birth abortions,” a second-trimester surgical method previously known as intact dilation and extraction. The procedure was extremely upsetting to behold. In it, the fetus—or is it a baby?—is removed from the uterus and stabbed in the back of the head with surgical scissors. It’s a revolting image, one to which the public was ritualistically subjected on the evening news as the debate raged on the House and Senate floors. Defending it was a pro-choice person’s nightmare. Pat Moynihan compared it to infanticide. Clinton still vetoed the ban in 1996, but it was eventually signed into law in 2003 and withstood a Supreme Court challenge in 2007. More important, women were spooked. “A lot of our patients started asking whether or not the fetus felt pain after that, even if they were early along in their pregnancy,” says Albert George Thomas, who until two years ago had spent eighteen years as the head of the family-planning clinic at Mount Sinai. He adds that many women also came into his clinic expressing confusion about the size of the fetus they were aborting. Some were terrified that it was huge, even those who were coming in at six weeks. At that stage, it’s the size of a lentil.