NEW YORK – By today’s politically polarized standards, the Supreme Court’s momentous Roe v. Wade ruling was a landslide. By a 7-2 vote on Jan. 22, 1973, the justices established a nationwide right to abortion.
Forty years and roughly 55 million abortions later, however, the ruling’s legacy is the opposite of consensus. Abortion ranks as one of the most intractably divisive issues in America and is likely to remain so as rival camps of true believers see little space for common ground.
Unfolding events in two states illustrate the depth of the divide. In New York, already a bastion of liberal abortion laws, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged in his Jan. 9 State of the State speech to entrench those rights even more firmly. In Mississippi, where many anti-abortion laws have been enacted in recent years, the lone remaining abortion clinic is on the verge of closure because nearby hospitals won’t grant obligatory admitting privileges to its doctors.
“Unlike a lot of other issues in the culture wars, this is the one in which both sides really regard themselves as civil rights activists, trying to expand the frontiers of human freedom,” said Jon Shields, a professor of government at Claremont Mc- Kenna College. “That’s a recipe for permanent conflict.”
On another hot-button social issue — same-sex marriage — there’s been a strong trend of increasing support in recent years, encompassing nearly all major demographic categories.
There’s been no such dramatic shift, in either direction, on abortion.
For example, a new Pew Research Center poll finds 63 percent of U.S. adults opposed to overturning Roe, compared to 60 percent in 1992. The latest Gallup poll on the topic shows 52 percent of Americans saying abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, 25 percent wanting it legal in all cases and 20 percent wanting it outlawed in all cases — roughly the same breakdown as in the 1970s.
“There’s a large share of Americans for whom this is not a black-and-white issue,” said Michael Dimock, the Pew center’s director. “The circumstances matter to them.”
Indeed, many conflicted respondents tell pollsters they support the right to legal abortion while considering it morally wrong. And a 2011 survey of 3,000 adults by the Public Religion Research Institute found many who classified themselves as both “pro-life” and “pro-choice.”
Shields, like many scholars of the abortion debate, doubts a victor will emerge anytime soon.
“There are reasonable arguments on both sides, making rationally defensible moral claims,” he said.
Nonetheless, the rival legions of activists and advocacy groups on the front lines of the conflict each claim momentum is on their side as they convene symposiums and organize rallies to commemorate the Roe anniversary.
Supporters of legal access to abortion were relieved by the victory of their ally, President Obama, over anti-abortion Republican Mitt Romney in November.
A key reason for the relief related to the Supreme Court, whose nine justices are believed to divide 5-4 in favor of a broad right to abortion. Romney, if elected, might have been able to appoint conservative justices who could help overturn Roe v. Wade, but Obama’s victory makes that unlikely at least for the next four years.
Abortion-rights groups also were heartened by a backlash to certain anti-abortion initiatives and rhetoric that they viewed as extreme.
“Until politicians feel there’s a price to pay for voting against women, they will continue to do it,” said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a lightning rod for conservative attacks because it’s the leading abortion provider in the U.S.
In Missouri and Indiana, Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate lost races that their party initially expected to win after making widely criticized comments regarding abortion rights for impregnated rape victims. In Virginia, protests combined with mockery on late-night TV shows prompted Republican politicians to scale back a bill that would have required women seeking abortions to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound.
“All these things got Americans angry and got them to realize just how extreme the other side is,” said Jennifer Dalven, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project.
“This issue will remain very divisive,” she said. “But I do see this as a sea-change moment … The American public wants abortion to remain safe, legal and accessible.”
However, anti-abortion leaders insist they have reason for optimism, particularly at the state level.
In the past two years, following Republican election gains in 2010, Republican-dominated state legislatures have passed more than 130 bills intended to reduce access to abortion. The measures include mandatory counseling and ultrasound for women seeking abortions, bans on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, curbs on how insurers cover the procedure and new regulations for abortion clinics.
The ACLU and other abortion-rights groups are challenging several of the laws in court, notably the 20-week ban. Yet already this year, Republican leaders in Texas, Mississippi and elsewhere are talking about new legislative efforts to restrict abortion.
Mississippi’s Gov. Phil Bryant says he wants to end abortion in the state and is eager for the remaining clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, to close.
The clinic is a steady target of anti-abortion protesters who take turns praying, singing hymns and confronting patients. Its administrator, Diane Derzis, said the three principal physicians on her staff have been unable to get admitting privileges at area hospitals due to pressure from the anti-abortion movement.
Such developments hearten Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, one of the groups most active in proposing anti-abortion bills for state legislatures to consider.
She believes that young Americans are increasingly skeptical about abortion, though polls give mixed verdicts.
“It is really easy to explain the pro-life position to a child — it’s hard to explain to them why you should kill a baby before it’s born,” Yoest said.
Supporters of legal access to abortion dispute the notion of swelling anti-abortion sentiment among young people, but some activists do sense a gap in terms of political intensity.
“I have enormous hope in this millennial generation — they’re progressive, thoughtful and they identify in their pro-choice values,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America for eight years.
“But there is an intensity gap — they don’t act on those values,” she said. “The other side votes their anti-choice, pro-life values — it’s at the top of their political activity.”