Texas state senator Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) speaks on June 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Some believe that, except for some religious groups, abortion is basically a settled matter in the United States. Last week reminded us that the gay marriage debate is all but over—especially for young people. Solid majorities still support Roe v. Wade. Isn’t it time to stop talking about an old culture war issue like abortion and move onto more modern and contested issues?
This view badly misunderstands American abortion politics. While a clear majority of Americans want abortion to be legal in some fashion, a solid majority also energetically support more restrictions. This has been reflected in state abortion legislation—which has been overwhelmingly in favor of abortion restrictions—and has several more restrictive bills in the pipeline. One of the few attempts to expand abortion access was recently defeated even in the liberal state of New York, where legislators rejected Governor Cuomo’s attempt to expand access to late term abortion.
The best known pending attempt to restrict abortion is in Texas. Last week, the Texas legislature moved to ban abortion after 20 weeks and to require all abortion facilities to offer women easier access to hospitals should the abortion go wrong. There were more than enough votes for passage, but a courageous young senator named Wendy Davis summoned the will to filibuster the bill for many hours. Though she required the hooting and hollering of a mob-like group in the gallery to temporarily shut down the vote in the last 20 minutes, her goal was achieved. The bill was passed a mere two minutes beyond the deadline.
Undeterred, supporters of the ban will use a second special session to try again to pass the bill, and that session begins today. It is unlikely that a filibuster will work this time around, and police will be better prepared to deal with those who would illegally try to shut down the legislative process.
So the bill will likely pass. This gives us occasion to ask what the country, more broadly, should think of banning abortion after 20 weeks. Appearing yesterday on This Week, Peggy Noonan claimed that Wendy Davis stood for “infanticide.” At first this might seem like an outrageous charge, but babies have survived outside the womb at 21 weeks, and as technology improves this threshold will go even lower. Does it make sense that killing a child outside the womb at 24 weeks is murder, but having an abortion at 24 weeks is a constitutionally protected right?
Most Americans do not think so. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 64 percent of Americans believe abortion should be illegal during weeks 13-24. And a whopping 80 percent believe it should be illegal after 24. Few know that women are more likely than men to think that abortion is wrong more generally, but it was reported last week that more women (50 percent) support the Texas 20 week ban than men (46 percent) nationwide. Texans of both sexes are overwhelming supportive of the ban.
Jamilia Bey, writing in the Washington Post, spoke for many pro-choice folks when she claimed that Texas was trying to “turn back the clock” on women’s rights. But those who view Europe as more progressive than the US might be surprised to learn that the proposed Texas law is rather tame by comparison. Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Holland, and Sweden—just to name a few—restrict abortion to well before 20 weeks. Several draw the line at 12 weeks.
Texas will be no anomaly in passing this kind of law. Similar laws have been passed, and will continue to be passed, throughout the developed world. Extremists who want virtually no limits on abortion are out of step with the direction of public opinion, which favors abortion laws that are more like Europe. This is especially true of Millennials, only 37 percent of whom think abortion is morally acceptable. This makes them far more anti-abortion than were Baby Boomers or Gen Xers at their age.
We are in the midst of a sea change when it comes to views of abortion in the United States. The events in Texas this week are a good window into that change, but it is only the beginning.
Charles C. Camosy is Ast. Prof. of Christian Ethics at Fordham University. His For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action will be released on the feast of St. Francis this October. His current book project is tentatively titled Abortion: a Way Forward.