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?