Abortion Issues in the United States

Why Abortion Issues Surface in Every American Election

Nat'l Organization For Women Marks Roe V. Wade Anniversary At Supreme Court
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Abortion issues surface in almost every American election, whether it's a local race for school board, a statewide race for governor or a federal contest for Congress or the White House. Abortion issues have polarized American society since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized the procedure. On one side are those who believe women are not entitled to end the life of an unborn child. On the other are those who believe women have the right to decide what happens to their body. Often there is no room for debate between the side.

Related Story: Is Abortion the Right Thing to Do?

In general, most Democrats support a woman's right to have an abortion and most Republicans oppose it. There are notable exceptions, though, including some politicians who have waffled on the issue. Some Democrats who are conservative when it comes to social issues such oppose abortion rights, and some moderate Republicans are open to allowing women to have the procedure. A 2016 Pew Research Survey found that 59 percent of Republicans believe abortion should be illegal, and 70 percent of Democrats believe the procure should be allowed.

Overall, though, a narrow majority of Americans — 56 percent in the Pew poll — support legalized abortion and 41 percent oppose it. "In both cases, these figures have remained relatively stable for at least two decades," the Pew Researchers found.

When Abortion Is Legal In the United States

Abortion refers to the voluntary termination of a pregnancy, resulting in the death of the fetus or embryo. Abortions performed prior to the third trimester are legal in the United States.
Abortion-rights advocates believe a woman should have access to whatever health care she needs and that she should have control over her own body. Opponents of abortion rights believe an embryo or fetus is alive and thus abortion is tantamount to murder. 

Current Status

The most controversial of abortion issues is the so-called "partial birth" abortion, a rare procedure. Beginning in the mid-90s, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate introduced legislation to ban "partial birth" abortions. In late 2003, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.
This law was drafted after the Supreme Court ruled Nebraska's "partial birth" abortion law unconstitutional because it did not allow a doctor to use the procedure even if it were the best method to preserve the health of the mother. Congress attempted to circumvent this ruling by declaring that the procedure is never medically necessary.


Abortion has existed in almost every society and was legal under Roman law, which also condoned infanticide. Today, almost two-thirds of the women in the world may obtain a legal abortion.
When America was founded, abortion was legal. Laws prohibiting abortion were introduced in the mid-1800s, and, by 1900, most had been outlawed. Outlawing abortion did nothing to prevent pregnancy, and some estimates put the number of annual illegal abortions from 200,000 to 1.2 million in the 1950s and 1960s.
States began liberalizing abortion laws in the 1960s, reflecting changed societal mores and, perhaps, the number of illegal abortions. In 1965, the Supreme Court introduced the idea of a "right to privacy" in Griswold v. Connecticut as it struck down laws that banned the sale of condoms to married people.
Abortion was legalized in 1973 when the U.S.Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that during the first trimester, a woman has the right to decide what happens to her body. This landmark decision rested on the "right to privacy" which was introduced in 1965. In addition, the Court ruled that the state could intervene in the second trimester and could ban abortions in the third trimester. However, a central issue, which the Court declined to address, is whether human life begins at conception, at birth, or at some point in between.
In 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the court overturned Roe's trimester approach and introduced the concept of viability. Today, approximately 90% of all abortions occur in the first 12 weeks.
In the 1980s and 1990s, anti-abortion activism -- spurred on by opposition from Roman Catholics and conservative Christian groups -- turned from legal challenges to the streets. The organization Operation Rescue organized blockades and protests around abortion clinics. Many of these techniques were prohibited by the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.


Most polls suggest that Americans, by a slim majority, call themselves "pro-choice" rather than "pro-life." That does not mean, however, that everyone who is "pro-choice" believes that abortion is acceptable under any circumstance. A majority support at least minor restrictions, which the Court found reasonable as well under Roe.
Thus the pro-choice faction contains a range of beliefs -- from no restrictions (the classic position) to restrictions for minors (parental consent) ... from support when a woman's life is endangered or when the pregnancy is the result of rape to opposition just because a woman is poor or unmarried.
Principle organizations include the Center for Reproductive Rights, The National Organization for Women (NOW), National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), Planned Parenthood, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.


The "pro-life" movement is thought of as more black-and-white in its range of opinions than the "pro-choice" faction. Those who support "life" are more concerned with the embryo or fetus and believe that abortion is murder. Gallup polls starting in 1975 consistently show that only a minority of Americans (12-19 percent) believe that all abortions should be banned.
Nevertheless, "pro-life" groups have taken a strategic approach to their mission, lobbying for mandated waiting periods, prohibitions on public funding and denial of public facilities.
In addition, some sociologists suggest that abortion has become a symbol of the changing status of women in society and of changing sexual mores. In this context, "pro-life" supporters may reflect a backlash against the women's movement.
Principle organizations include the Catholic Church, Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, and National Right to Life Committee.

Where It Stands

President George W. Bush supported and signed the constitutionally questionable "partial-birth" abortion ban and, as Governor of Texas, vowed to put an end to abortion. Immediately after taking office, Bush eliminated U.S. funding to any international family planning organization that provided abortion counseling or services -- even if they did so with private funds.
There was no easily-accessed issue statement about abortion on the 2004 candidate web site. However, in an editorial entitled "The War Against Women" the New York Times wrote:

  • The lengthening string of anti-choice executive orders, regulations, legal briefs, legislative maneuvers, and key appointments emanating from his administration suggests that undermining the reproductive freedom essential to women's health, privacy and equality is a major preoccupation of his administration - second only, perhaps, to the war on terrorism.
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Gill, Kathy. "Abortion Issues in the United States." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/abortion-issues-in-the-united-states-3367873. Gill, Kathy. (2020, August 26). Abortion Issues in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/abortion-issues-in-the-united-states-3367873 Gill, Kathy. "Abortion Issues in the United States." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/abortion-issues-in-the-united-states-3367873 (accessed June 14, 2021).