The evolving dimensions pertaining to human rights have been changing all over the world over the last two years. On the one hand all countries have observed Mother’s Day and expressed their honor for all mothers all over the world, irrespective of ethnicity or religion. At the same time groups from all over the world have underlined their opposition to child marriage which has gained in numbers due to the harmful effects of the Corona Pandemic.
It is during such a time that the world has watched with interest the huge controversy that has emerged once again within the United States over whether abortion, as an option, could be considered as legal based on the principle of human rights. In this context, the print and electronic media recalled how protesters had gathered outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1, 2021, as the Court was hearing oral arguments over a Mississippi law restricting abortions in the State after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The Pew Research Center has recently brought forth an analytical article where they have pointed out that a majority of Americans consider that abortion should be made legal in all or most cases. However many are also open to restrictions; with the understanding that there can be legal abortion only in some circumstances. Such a distinction in view has been described as a debate “with “pro-life” people on one side, seeking to restrict abortion’s availability, and “pro-choice” people on the other, opposing government restrictions on abortion”.
A new Pew Research Center survey was undertaken to explore in detail the nuances of the public’s attitudes on this issue. The survey was conducted March 7-13, 2022 – after the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on a case challenging the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a federal right to abortion, but before the May 2 publication of an alleged leaked document related to a U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion that suggests that the Court was on the edge of striking down the Roe verdict.
The Pew Survey has focused on the long-running question about the legality of abortion – which asks whether it should generally be illegal in all cases, illegal in most cases, legal in most cases, or legal in all cases. It appears to have found that – public views have remained relatively stable in recent years, but support for legal abortion is as high today as at any point in surveys asking this question since 1995.
The survey has indicated that “more Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances (61%) than illegal in all or most circumstances (37%)”. However, research has revealed that “the public’s attitudes are contingent upon such circumstances as- when an abortion takes place during a woman’s pregnancy- whether the pregnancy endangers a woman’s life and whether a baby would have severe health problems”. It has however been underlined that “the same share of people who generally support legal abortion say abortion providers should be required to get the consent of a parent or guardian before performing an abortion on a minor (56%)”.
In this context it would be significant to also point out that about a third of Americans who generally support legal abortion (33%) say- the statement “human life begins at conception, so a fetus is a person with rights” describes their own view well. Interestingly, nearly half of those (46%) who say that abortion should be legal if the pregnancy threatens the health or life of the woman is accompanied by another section who suggests that it should be legal if the pregnancy has resulted from rape.
It however appears to be clear that even today most Americans open to some restrictions on abortion. The Survey has indicated that “large numbers of Americans favor certain restrictions on access to abortions. For example, seven-in-ten say doctors should be required to notify a parent or legal guardian of minors seeking abortions. And most of those who say abortion should be legal in some cases and illegal in others say that how long a woman has been pregnant should be a factor in determining whether abortion is legal or illegal”.
The Survey also touched on another significant dimension – determination as to when during a pregnancy abortion should be considered as legal, and at what point should it become illegal? To help answer this question, the Survey posed follow-up queries about three periods: six weeks (when cardiac activity – sometimes called a fetal heartbeat – can be detected), 14 weeks (roughly the end of the first trimester), and 24 weeks (near the end of the second trimester). This was indeed clinical.The Survey data showed, as expected, “that as pregnancy progresses, opposition to legal abortion grows and support for legal abortion declines”. 44% of U.S. adults brought within the paradigm of the Survey expressed the view that- “abortion should be legal at six weeks, 21% said it should be illegal at six weeks, and another 19% said whether it should be legal or not at six weeks “depends.” At 14 weeks, the share saying abortion should be legal declines to 34%, while 27% say illegal and 22% say “it depends.” When asked about the legality of abortion at 24 weeks of pregnancy, a point when a healthy fetus could survive outside the woman’s body, with medical attention, Americans are about twice as likely to say abortion should be illegal as to say it should be legal at this time point. However, in a follow-up question, 44% of those who initially responded by saying that abortion should be illegal at this late stage went on to add that- in cases where the woman’s life is threatened or the baby will be born with severe disabilities- abortion should be legal at 24 weeks.
In this context, the Survey has pointed out that six-in-ten U.S. adults have said “that if doctors and other providers perform abortions in situations where it is illegal, then they should face penalties – including 25% who say the doctors/providers should serve jail time for performing abortions illegally and 18% have said they should face fines or community service. In response to another related question, 31% of Americans have said that “doctors should lose their medical licenses for performing an abortion illegally”.
As expected the Survey has also brought to the forefront that there are partisan differences on this delicate issue between the Democrats and the Republicans within the U.S.
Democrats appear to be far more likely than Republicans to respond that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say it should be illegal in most or all cases. It has also been revealed that in the case of situations where pregnancy threatens the life or health of the woman, or where pregnancy is the result of rape – “Democrats are more likely
than Republicans to say abortion should be legal”.
However, most Democrats, when asked, have also apparently said that “there are at least some instances in which abortion should be illegal” On the other hand Republicans have responded that- “at least in some instances abortion should be legal”, particularly when –“the life or health of the pregnant woman is at risk and when the pregnancy is the result of rape”. About half of Democrats and roughly two-thirds of Republicans have also agreed that the stage of pregnancy should be a factor in determining abortion’s legality.
The Survey has also exposed another interesting facet associated with religion- “white evangelical Protestants are most opposed to abortion – but majorities across Christian subgroups see gray areas”. Nearly three-quarters of the white evangelical Protestants are most opposed to abortion and have either reiterated that abortion should be against the law in all cases without exception (21%) or that it should be illegal in most cases (53%). On the other hand, other Christian groups appear to be also influenced by their religious beliefs on the issue of abortion. The Survey has identified that U.S. adults who describe themselves, religiously, as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” – are most supportive of legal abortion. The Pew Survey has however drawn attention to the fact that White Protestants who are not evangelical, Black Protestants, and Catholics tend to be less opposed to legal abortion than White evangelicals.
Analysts have however raised questions as to whether some of the above thoughts have been shared by American communities of other different religious backgrounds- Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist and other subgroups or by others who have mixed marriages or the couple live together but are not married. Complexity is further introduced into the equation through the fact that many of different religions have entered the USA as legal migrants only recently.
This is not fully clear but one would tend to think that the sensitive issue of abortion and the right to avail of this process will continue to differ in each State of the United States in the near future and for some time to come. The whole of Latin America, the Caribbean and many countries in Africa and Europe are monitoring the unfolding evolving scenario with interest.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance