When President George Bush signs a ban on "partial-birth" abortion into law, as he is expected to, it will hardly signal the quiet end to this eight-year debate. While abortion opponents hail the legislation as a hard-fought victory, abortion rights groups have already promised to challenge the ban, placing the issue again in the hands of the Supreme Court, which narrowly struck down a similar Nebraska partial-birth statute in 2000.
While the future of this issue is uncertain, more so given rumblings of a possible change in the court's makeup, it is useful to look back on the path of public opinion on the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. Gallup has been tracking public opinion on this issue since President Bill Clinton's veto of the first proposed ban in 1996.
Legislation and Public Opinion
The push for a ban on partial-birth abortions began in 1995 shortly after the Republican takeover of Congress. In March 1996, the proposed ban cleared Congress, but Clinton vetoed it in April because it did not include a "health of the mother" exception.
A few weeks after the president's veto, Gallup asked Americans, "Would you vote...for or against a law which would make it illegal to perform a specific abortion procedure conducted in the last six months of pregnancy know as a ‘partial-birth abortion,' except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother?" A majority of Americans, 57%, said they would vote for such a law, while a substantial minority, 39%, said they would vote against it.
In the fall of 1997, another proposed ban on the procedure made it through Congress, and Clinton vetoed it yet again on the same grounds. Earlier that year, Gallup had asked Americans whether they would vote for or against a ban on the procedure, except in cases necessary to save the mother's life: "If you could vote on this issue directly, would you vote for or against the following -- A law which would make it illegal to perform a specific abortion procedure conducted in the last six months of pregnancy known as a "partial-birth abortion," except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother?" Fifty-five percent of Americans said they would vote for such a law, and 40% would vote against it.
In 1998, 1999, and April 2000, Gallup repeated the same question to Americans. The percentage of Americans saying they would vote for a law making partial-birth abortions illegal inched upward. From March 1997 to April 2000, support for a ban rose from 55% to 66%.
In 2000, there were two important developments regarding partial-birth abortion legislation. A partial-birth abortion ban made it through the House in early April, but then was apparently derailed by a case that was argued before the Supreme Court later that month. In June 2000, the Supreme Court narrowly struck down (in a 5-4 decision) a Nebraska statute that criminalized the performance of partial-birth abortions. The court ruled that the Nebraska law lacked the "requisite exception for the preservation of the … health of the mother." In October of that year, support for a partial-birth abortion ban had not changed significantly from readings taken before the court's decision.
With George W. Bush's election, proponents of the partial-birth abortion ban continued to push forward in 2002 and 2003, banking on the support of a pro-life Republican president. In January 2003, Gallup's question tracking public support for a ban on partial-birth abortion found 70% of U.S. adults in favor of the ban, and only 25% opposed.
A May Gallup Poll showed that opposition to late-term abortions (but did not mention the "partial-birth" procedure) is somewhat less under specific conditions. For example, a majority (59%) say abortions in the third trimester should be legal if the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest. And 48% favor legal abortions in the third trimester if the child would be born with a life-threatening illness, while 38% would favor a late-term abortion if the child would be born mentally impaired -- both figures higher than the 25% opposition to partial-birth abortion in the January 2003 question.
Ultimately, the legality of the partial-birth ban enacted this year will be decided in the Supreme Court. Past Gallup polling has found prevailing support for a ban, but recent data reveal somewhat higher support (although still less than a majority) for several exceptions to the general ban.