July 28, 2002
Why do professional abortion-rights advocates anathematize as "anti-choice" anyone who favors even minimal regulation of abortion? Their absolutism would be seen as ridiculous in almost any other area of law.
For example: Americans have a fundamental right to own and use land, but no one believes that land use should be entirely untrammeled. A great body of law has developed to regulate what people do with their land -- from local zoning ordinances to common law nuisance remedies to federal wetlands and endangered-species statutes. Reasonable people can and do debate the wisdom of particular regulations. But nearly everyone agrees that there must be some restrictions on an owner's right to make use of his property. Only a crank would argue that to favor any sort of limitation at all is to be "anti-ownership" or an enemy of landholders.
To take another example, Americans have the constitutional freedom to express their views in public. But no one takes the First Amendment to mean that self-expression may never be restricted. Your right to free speech does not authorize you to utter slander, to threaten the life of the president, to falsely shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater, or to give perjured testimony in court.
Yet when it comes to abortion, there is no such thing as a reasonable restriction -- not to the abortion-rights spokeswomen we invariably hear from whenever the issue comes up. A 24-hour waiting period? Pre-abortion counseling to discuss possible risks or alternatives? Parental notification when a minor wants an abortion? A ban on partial-birth abortions? The politician who calls for such limits or the judge who upholds them can count on being slammed as a threat to "reproductive rights" and a foe of "choice."
Just ask Priscilla Owen, the Texas Supreme Court justice nominated by President Bush to the Fifth Circuit US Court of Appeals. She is by most accounts a restrained and thoughtful judge; the American Bar Association, which is not known for its embrace of GOP nominees, unanimously pronounced her "well-qualified." But because in several teen-abortion cases she ruled that parental notification was required, she is being excoriated. Planned Parenthood calls her an "anti-choice extremist." The National Organization for Women accuses her of "disdaining women's rights." The National Abortion Rights Action League says she "exemplifies the most extreme hostility to reproductive rights."
But just who are the real extremists here? In an analysis published last week, the Gallup News Service notes that "in general, polling shows wide public support for parental consent laws -- policies that are even more restrictive than parental notification." In 1996, a Gallup survey found 74 percent of Americans in favor of requiring parental consent for a minor's abortion. Since then, the level of support has gone even higher. In a 1998 CBS/New York Times poll, 78 percent wanted parental consent. In a Los Angeles Times survey two years after that, the figure was 82 percent.
Justice Owen insists her rulings are based on Texas law, not her own personal views. But if they do reflect her personal views, she clearly has lots of company. Does that mean that more than four Americans in five are "anti-choice extremists?" Or is it NARAL, NOW, and Planned Parenthood that stand far outside the mainstream?
In poll after poll, a majority of respondents say that, as a general rule, abortion should remain legal and the government should not interfere with a woman's right to end her pregnancy. But when asked about restricting abortion in specific ways or circumstances, they often say yes.
Thus, 86 percent of Americans would make abortion illegal in the third trimester (Gallup, 2000), and 63 percent would vote to ban partial-birth abortions. Mandatory pre-abortion counseling is favored by 86 percent of the public (Gallup 1996); a 24-hour waiting period by 79 percent (CBS/New York Times, 1998). (These all presuppose a healthy mother and child; Americans overwhelmingly support legal abortion when the mother's health is seriously threatened or when there is likely to be a serious defect in the baby.)
It makes sense that the public does not regard these limitations as unreasonable. Americans recognize that abortion is too serious and tragic to be undertaken lightly. They know that the pro-life slogan "Abortion stops a beating heart" is a statement of fact. So while they support reproductive rights, they do not support unfettered abortion on demand, for any reason at any time.
But that is largely what organizations like NARAL, NOW, and Planned Parenthood do support, which is why they vigorously oppose the kinds of abortion regulations that most Americans would endorse. That is their right, of course. But why should their radical viewpoint be the standard for defining "pro-choice?" Pro-choice is what most Americans are: In favor of the right to choose, but also in favor of common-sense limits on that right. For NARAL & Co., we need a more accurate term. I'd suggest "pro-abortion."