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1990 and 2020

Examining how public opinion on abortion has changed in the last 30 years

1990 and 2020

2020: Pro-life advocates hold signs while standing outside the U.S. Supreme Court while participating in the 47th annual March For Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

The printed signs they carried: “Life is Winning.” “Pro-life is Pro-Woman.” “Love Them Both.” “Choose Love, Choose Life.” “We are the Pro-Life Generation.” “Pro-freedom, Pro-life.” “Babies Lives Matter.” “I Regret My Abortion.”

The handwritten signs they waved: “She can have her baby and her dreams too.” “I am a lifeguard: I believe in guarding all life.” “Pregnancy is not a health problem.” “Human rights begin in the womb.” “I was 16 scared and pregnant, but her life mattered too.” “Doctor Said Abort. Parents Said No. I Love My Life.” 

The crowd at the 47th annual March for Life on Jan. 24 was huge—100,000 was a reasonable estimate—and young. Thousands of students from Christian schools came wearing coats and beanies of many colors: blue, orange, black, and checkerboard. The march I attended in 1990 was smaller and older.

That year President George H.W. Bush phoned the march and offered abstract niceties. This year Donald Trump became the first president to speak in person at a march. He gave a passionate speech emphasizing his administration’s pro-life successes, including the confirmation of “187 federal judges who apply the Constitution as written, including two phenomenal Supreme Court justices.”

Trump concluded with an “I love you all,” and many in the crowd yelled, “We love you back” or “We love you, Donald.” It was a long way from his 1999 statement, “I am pro-choice in every respect.” For the pro-life movement, 2020 is a long way from 1990, when abortions in the United States peaked at 1.6 million per year, and from 1995, when 56 percent of Americans called themselves “pro-choice” (and only 33 percent said they were pro-life).

Bettmann/Getty Images

1990: A pro-life demonstrator confronts a Planned Parenthood backer outside an abortion facility in Houston where pro-lifers sought to prevent potential clients from entering the building. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

The number of abortions has fallen by almost half during the past three decades. The viewpoint split now, according to Gallup polling, is 46 percent “pro-choice” and 49 percent pro-life. A May 2019 poll showed 38 percent of Americans favoring legal abortion in all or most circumstances, and 60 percent wanting it illegal in all or almost all circumstances. 

Changed attitudes and a changed Supreme Court have led to great optimism among today’s pro-lifers. The crowd cheered as Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen said by video, “Life is winning.” A March for Life marshal greeted early arrivers, “Good morning. You’re almost there.”

But “almost” in abortion history is a long way from “there.” Optimism in the pro-life movement is nothing new. In 1990 at the National Right to Life annual convention, workshop leaders said, “We’ll do this after Roe is overturned, we’ll do that after Roe is overturned.” On the other side, Justice Harry Blackmun feared an overturn of his most notorious opinion: “The signs are evident and very ominous.” 

We’ll understand more about current opportunities if we see what went wrong in the early 1990s and what’s gone right since then. We’ll concentrate on public opinion, starting with what Abraham Lincoln said in 1856: “In this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.” 

Throughout the 1980s pro-abortion propagandists aimed their attacks against a fast-growing pro-life development: crisis pregnancy centers that helped pregnant women materially and spiritually. The pro-abort slur “right to life, right to lie” never gained major traction: It was hard to make the majority of Americans in the middle believe that volunteer counselors—who helped troubled women and sometimes gave them lodging—were evil. 

At the end of the decade NARAL Pro-Choice America President Kate Michelman warned her troops of a swing “sharply to the right, and as I speak to you now, the fate of millions of American women quite literally hangs in the balance.” The polls reflected pro-abortion forces’ failure to move public opinion in their direction. In 1980 only 1 in 4 Americans wanted abortion to be always legal. Despite major media support for abortion, support for the always-legal position dropped slightly during the next eight years.

From 1988 to 1992, though, support for always-legal abortion increased by 40 percent. A big development during those four years: Operation Rescue (OR) became the face of the pro-life movement. The intent was noble: save lives by blockading abortion businesses. The 1960s civil rights movement had gained huge media support: Couldn’t the same happen with attempts to save the most helpless among us?

George Widman/AP

Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry leads a sit-in outside the Northeast Women’s Center in Philadelphia in 1988. (George Widman/AP)

Big media, though, presented rescuers as oppressors of women. The Los Angeles Times headline on April 15, 1990, was typical: “Huge Protest at Abortion Clinic Turns Violent.” The story told how “militant abortion protesters descended on a Los Angeles women’s clinic during a violence-marred, seven-hour siege.”

As journalist/historian Cynthia ­Gorney pointed out, “In the newspaper stories about OR, no one ever ‘held’ a Bible or a rosary: these items were always ‘clutched,’ as though everyone present had fallen into amusing spasms of holy-roller frenzy.”

Pro-abortion journalists would have seen OR spokesman Randall Terry as a godsend, if they had believed in God. Gorney’s reporting is accurate: “How readily Terry lent himself to caricature, how precisely his carriage and language suited every secular cliché of the heavy-breathing right-to-lifer. He had worked as a used car salesman, a detail reporters repeated frequently and with obvious delight.”

Correlation is not causation, so I can’t say that OR caused that big jump in ardent pro-abortion sentiment, but in 1990 I chaired meetings of pro-life leaders who saw Terry’s media presence as disastrous, particularly when television producers paired “the angry white man” with demure Planned Parenthood President Faye Wattleton, an African American. Three leaders I spoke with just before the 2020 March for Life, with a combined century of experience in the pro-life movement, said the same. 

The Supreme Court’s Webster decision in 1989 was extraordinarily muddled, but abortion advocates used it to fundraise: The court was a haven of reason, the pro-life movement (purportedly typified by OR) a center of radical frenzy. The Boston Globe stated one result: “The abortion-rights movement has gained extraordinary political momentum.” The Washington Post opined, “The ground has shifted toward pro-choice”—and the newspaper never ­admitted that it was using huge earthmovers to accomplish that feat.

Major networks and newspapers pressured moderately pro-life politicians to change their positions. When they did, the Chicago Tribune and other publications ridiculed them: “Candidate’s Copout” and “Wimp Wriggle.” Newsweek harrumphed about “abortion contortions.” Pro-abortion forces mobilized star power: Jane Fonda, Marlo Thomas, and Susan Sarandon gave speeches. Alice Walker read a poem at one abortion event.

Humorist Finley Peter Dunne in 1901 said, “The Supreme Court follows the election returns,” but this was no laughing matter near the end of the century. Republican operatives had assured ­pro-life leaders that Reagan nominee Anthony Kennedy (1988) and Bush nominee David Souter (1990) would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. In 1992’s Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey case, though, they instead followed the Gallup polls and smashed pro-life hopes by keeping Roe alive.  

It got worse. Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the court in August 1993, replacing pro-life Byron White. Stephen Breyer in 1994 replaced retiring Harry Blackmun, a wash—but suddenly abortion had a 6-3 majority with two new justices likely to stick around for at least 25 years. A pro-abortion tide also rolled in at local levels: In Portland and Houston, juries and judges decreed millions of dollars in fines against those who blocked the doors of abortion centers. 

As justice slipped away, a few honed their frustration into murder. In 1993, one pro-lifer murdered abortionist David Gunn outside his Pensacola abortion business. In 1994, others murdered abortionist John Britton and his bodyguard, James Barrett, and two receptionists at Massachusetts abortion centers. While pro-life leaders condemned the killings, big media placed a scarlet “M” for murder on the pro-life movement. 

Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Sipa USA via AP

Thousands march in support of the unborn in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24. (Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Sipa USA via AP)

AT THE LOWEST MOMENT for the pro-life movement, four deliverances—two from law and politics, two from technology—turned the tide. 

Blockades of abortion centers peaked in 1992 with 83 and were already down to 25 in 1994, but that year President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. Protesters who blocked entrances, trespassed on facility property, or stopped cars from entering parking lots now faced up to a $10,000 fine and six months’ jail time for a first offense. A second conviction would bring up to 18 years in prison and fines of up to $25,000. In 1995 the number of blockades decreased to five, and soon there were none. The forced end to OR prominence was a public opinion blessing in disguise. 

In 1995 a different sensational battle hit the news. Republicans who suddenly controlled both the Senate and the House of Representatives pushed forward legislation that showed how extreme America’s new abortion regime was. Eighty congressional Democrats joined the GOP majority in passing a partial-birth abortion ban that would keep abortionists from puncturing the skulls of children close to birth. Given his need for pro-abortion support, Bill Clinton chose to veto the bill twice, even though that kept the focus on barbarism. 

The year 1996 brought the Fox News Channel: Suddenly the abortion lobby no longer had a broadcast monopoly. The growth of conservative talk radio and internet websites also opened up new media avenues. Pro-life communicators kept the partial-birth abortion issue alive until President George W. Bush could sign the ban into law, with 60 percent to 75 percent of the American public approving and the Supreme Court upholding it 5-4.

Meanwhile, a technological breakthrough aided the pro-life movement. The cost of ultrasound technology decreased and the quality increased. Troubled parents could now see not just a flat, black-and-white image that needed interpretation by doctors and nurses, but a multidimensional portrait of their unborn baby in motion. Crisis pregnancy centers found a sharp upswing in decisions to keep babies alive. 

John Piper had offered a prophetic word in 1989: Ultrasound and intrauterine photography would open “a window on the womb that will be Exhibit A at the judgment seat of God. There is no more excuse.” Abortion advocates recognized this in 2016 when they criticized a 2016 Super Bowl commercial for Doritos in which an unborn baby moves yearningly toward a bag of chips. “Nobody shares a Facebook picture of their ‘fetus,’” The Daily Beast commented: “We call it a baby. And once we do, the argument is over.” 

Not quite. Last spring’s Gallup polling showed 3 in 5 Americans wanting abortion to be illegal in all or almost all circumstances, but big media misinformation has been effective: One-third of that majority opposes overturning Roe v. Wade, even though Roe must go if abortion is to be most often illegal. The mis­education doesn’t end there: While more Americans self-identify as pro-life rather than pro-choice, only 35 percent believe they are in the majority. 

Nevertheless, the reality of abortion combined with pro-life perseverance has produced much better results than evident in the other social issue that’s been central to our cultural battles, homosexuality. From 1996 to 2019, the percentage of Americans favoring same-sex marriage zoomed from 27 to 63 percent. Public opinion led the way to legal change. In 2011: The first polling majority for same-sex marriage. In 2012: President Barack Obama announces his support. In 2013: The Supreme Court signals its support by overturning a California constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. In 2015: A 5-4 Supreme Court makes it official.

DURING THAT SAME PERIOD, pro-life sentiment not only held its own but increased. The change is evident at both street level and suite level. The number of abortion centers in the United States has fallen to 800, while just one evangelical network, CareNet, has 1,100 affiliates. Another major pro-life organization, Heartbeat International, has 2,700 centers worldwide. 

More than 800 churches participated last year in 40 Days for Life, a movement devoted not to blockading abortion businesses but witnessing near them. The organization says its vigils have contributed to saving nearly 17,000 lives since 2007, without creating a backlash that pushes public opinion in the direction of abortionists. 

Matthew Arnold in the mid-19th century wrote of the Sea of Faith’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” Many pro-lifers have felt that way during the past three decades, but the tide is rolling in again. Ten years ago WORLD depicted this in a memorable cover illustration. Since then the babies have floated in closer. Meanwhile, many ardent abortion advocates are no longer chasing the middle ground with the “safe, legal, and rare” mantra of the 1990s. With increasing shamelessness they are ordering women to “shout your abortion!”

And last month President Trump didn’t stay in the Oval Office, at a safe mile away from the March for Life. He not only said all the right words and listed his baby-saving executive orders, but recognized the compassion that characterizes most of the pro-life movement: “You stand for life each and every day. You provide housing, education, jobs, and medical care to the women you serve. You find loving families for children in need of a forever home. You host baby showers for expecting moms.  You make—you just make it your life’s mission to help spread God’s grace.”

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.