How can two-thirds of Americans say they are both pro-choice and pro-life? Are they confused about what those terms mean?
I wouldn’t say so. The Public Religion Research Institute’s important new survey of attitudes toward abortion (and, to a lesser extent, homosexuality) makes clear that most Americans take a nuanced view. As the title puts it: “Committed to Availability, Conflicted about Morality.” We are, in a word, at once pro-choice and pro-life.
Unfortunately, the report uses the word “situational” to describe any point of view that does not commit to the “principle” of either Choice or Life across the board. This invites association with the maligned notion of “situational ethics,” as though the majority of Americans have no principles when it comes to abortion. But why isn’t it a matter of principle to support abortion rights in cases of rape, incest, and to protect the health of the mother?
The pro-life movement has long taken the position that the issue of abortion turns on a determination of when “life” begins. That’s a rhetorical/political strategy masquerading as science. One can accept that “a life” is present without considering it to merit the same protections as an infant.
The real issue has to do with how we value the developing embryo/fetus. Rabbinic Judaism, for example, places less value on it than on the well-being of the pregnant woman. By contrast, if it is considered a “person” from the moment of conception, as the Alabama Senate would now have it, then the legal penalties for terminating a pregnancy should be the same as those for premeditated murder. Based on the PRRI survey, only 12 percent of Americans would be open to such a claim. The large majority tend toward the rabbinic point of view.