In one fell swoop on this date forty-six years ago, the abortion laws of the fifty states of this union were made to conform to a uniform standard: The procedure could not be prohibited before fetal viability. Over the years since then, medical and technological advances have moved the viability threshold several weeks earlier into pregnancy. The threshold as stipulated by different states varies, but in none is it earlier than 20 weeks. Some states that prohibit abortion after viability make exceptions where fetal abnormality has been detected late in pregnancy.
Against that background, American pro-life activists have worked on two tracks: Seek incremental change to existing state abortion laws, and seek to overturn Roe v. Wade. If Roe is overturned and no alternative federal framework is substituted for it, the age range of unborn children who could be protected under state laws will be expanded indefinitely, to the point that abortion could be prohibited under all circumstances. Four states currently have “trigger laws” establishing an outright ban on abortion will go into effect automatically if Roe is overturned. The vast majority of Americans live in states where the practice appears unlikely to be abolished any time soon, given public opinion. Moving it in the direction of the pro-life cause solidly enough to support anti-abortion legislation in, say, California or New York looks like a tough nut for the movement to crack, but social attitudes can change fast, and the pro-life movement is famously persistent.
Remembering American exceptionalism, we may hope that the United States will, by example, lead the world in a global movement to extend legal protections to the unborn from the moment of conception. But to see the difficulty of that objective from a broader perspective, let’s step back and look at the nation in the context of social attitudes toward abortion worldwide. In a 2017 survey of public opinion in 24 countries—mostly in Europe and the Americas but also in Russia, China, Turkey, Japan, and South Africa—Ipsos found that, in the aggregate, 71 percent think that abortion should be permitted in some (28 percent) or all (43 percent) circumstances. Seventeen percent think that it should be permitted either never or only to save the life of the mother.
For the United States, the split is 68 (supportive of at least some abortion rights) to 22 (supportive of at least qualified protection for an unborn child’s right to life)—a moderately more pro-life profile than the average in the survey. At one end of the spectrum is Sweden, where 87 percent think that abortion should be permitted in all or some circumstances; 77 percent, a strikingly high figure, think that it should be permitted without restrictions; only 4 percent think that it should be permitted either never or rarely. The most pro-life country in the survey is Peru, where 43 percent think that abortion should be permitted never or only rarely, while 49 percent think it should be permitted in all or some circumstances, although those who say “in all circumstances” are only 12 percent.
In the two countries, Peru and Sweden, where public opinion swings hardest in one direction or the other, pro-life or pro-abortion-rights, that opinion roughly correlates with the existing abortion law. Sweden’s is roughly as permissive as that of the United States: Abortion there is legal up to fetal viability, whose threshold is set as twenty-two weeks. In Peru, abortion is illegal except to save the life of the mother or to preserve her health, and the health exception is generally not, like the “mental health” clause under British abortion law, treated as a license for abortion for any reason.
Does the law influence public opinion? Or does public opinion determine what the law is? Or are the two inextricably linked in a symbiotic relationship or feedback loop? Insofar as the law is a teacher, it follows that Peruvians receive their nation’s restrictive abortion law as a lesson that abortion is wrong. But insofar as public opinion, at least in a democracy, is a legislator, it follows that Peru’s tough anti-abortion law reflects the will of the people.
A caveat: Even in Peru, whose population is exceptionally pro-life and whose abortion law is exceptionally restrictive, certainly for a Western nation, support for the legality of abortion is still a little greater than opposition to it. Granted, the categories that respondents were given to choose from may have skewed the results away from the pro-life position. If you thought that abortion should be illegal but that an exception should be made in cases of rape, your answer was categorized as qualified support for abortion, although it could have just as logically been called qualified support for the pro-life position. All the same, a plurality of Peruvians, nearly half of the population, disagree with their nation’s existing law, which makes no exceptions even for rape or incest.
Another caveat: Researchers have reported that Peru’s abortion rate is “as high as or higher than the rates in many countries where induced abortion is legal.” The language in which the finding is presented suggests that the authors write from a bias against pro-life laws, but it’s not implausible that the demand for abortions in Peru would approximate the demand elsewhere and that a market in illegal abortions has developed to meet it.
When looking at the results of the Ipsos survey as a whole, you might be surprised, as I was, to see that in Hungary, despite its reputation for being a conservative nation rooted in traditional Catholicism, 67 percent of the population say that abortion should be permitted without restrictions. Only 1 percent say that it should be banned without exceptions. Those results tell a story similar to the one that came into view after last year’s vote in Ireland to liberalize the abortion law there; a majority even in rural districts voted to repeal what had been a nearly total legal ban on the procedure.
American pro-life advocates have their work cut out for them. Given the increasing ease of communications across national boundaries and of international travel, social attitudes toward abortion in the world at large influence social attitudes here in the United States, so that the pro-life movement here rides a worldwide wave—or swims against a worldwide tide, which it must somehow develop the persuasive power to reverse.