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Abortion Rights Law Turns 40: Most Americans Want to Keep it Legal

PHOTO: At the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Pew pollsters have found entrenched attitudes on abortion. Courtesy of Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
PHOTO: At the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Pew pollsters have found entrenched attitudes on abortion. Courtesy of Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
January 21, 2013

ST. LOUIS - The Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States, Roe versus Wade, turns 40 this week (Tueday) and a new poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds most Americans - 63 percent - want to keep it legal.

Alan Cooperman, associate director for research with the Pew Forum, says public opinion has stayed at about the same for the last 20 years. However, he says, although most people don't think the law should be changed, they seem to understand that the issue is complicated.

"Public opinion on this is not divided into two straightforward camps, as one might think."

For example, Pew's research finds nearly one in five Americans say they personally believe abortion is morally unacceptable, but don't want to make it illegal.

While the poll shows the divide over the issue has stayed about the same, Pam Fitcher, president of Missouri Right to Life, says she doesn't believe it.

"Yes, there's a lot of entrenchment, but the movement is all on the side of 'pro-life.'"

Fitcher says she believes that most people want to make abortions illegal, and that her group will continue to try to overturn Roe v. Wade and to de-fund Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood officials point out that it receives federal funding for services like family planning and contraception, but by law, no federal dollars are spent on abortions.

Pamela Sumner, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, says she's discouraged over lack of progress between the two sides on common-ground issues like prevention of unwanted pregnancies.

"We ought to be able to agree on things that would lower the number of abortions, because it's not like fun. It's not like taking a Tic-Tac and everybody just wants to line up there, for their fun abortion."

A lot of people seem to be willing to consider exceptions to the rule. Among those surveyed by Pew, whether they said abortions should be legal or illegal, more chose the phrase "in most cases" rather than "all the time." Sumner says Missourians who publicly took hard-line positions are out of touch with a lot of women.

"Missouri gave you Rush Limbaugh's 'slut' comments. Missouri gave you Aiken's 'legitimate rape' comments."

Limbaugh wound up apologizing for his remarks, and Todd Aiken was defeated by Claire McCaskill in the last Senate race. Sumner says she agrees with Planned Parenthood's position that decisions about women's reproductive health should be made by women, not politicians.

Many Americans may think politicians have better things to do with their time. Fifty-three percent told Pew that abortion was "not that important" compared with other issues facing the country.

The poll information is at

Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - MO