The Very Different Legacies of Two Court Decisions

Americans Show Themselves at Odds With Roe v. Wade

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By Carl Anderson

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, JUNE 1, 2009 ( Of the many U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century, two are perhaps the best known: Brown v. Board of Education, and Roe v. Wade.

So important are these two cases that it was no accident that in a recent speech to graduates at Notre Dame University, President Obama based much of his remarks on their legacies.

But the legacies of these two decisions, and their level of acceptance by the American people, couldn’t be more different.

In 1990, as a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, I had an opportunity to gauge the degree to which America had embraced the legacy of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education: the decision that ended the legal sanction of racial segregation in the United States.

At that time, three and a half decades after Brown, the embrace of the ideal of racial equality had grown steadily, and was clearly embraced by the vast majority of Americans. That is even more the case today.

But if Brown was almost universally accepted by the American people, the opposite is true of Roe v. Wade: the decision that legalized abortion.

Today, three and a half decades after Roe, the consensus among the American people is increasingly — and overwhelmingly — opposed to its legacy. As much as Americans have embraced the legacy in Brown, they have moved further and further away from that of Roe, which has been interpreted to allow abortion without restrictions.

And opposition to Roe’s legacy by Americans is a fact: one made very clear by several recent polls.

Now, as the United States prepares for hearings on the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to fill an opening on the Supreme Court, they — and she — should consider carefully the legacy of both court decisions: the widespread acceptance of the legacy of the first, and the overwhelming rejection of the legacy of the second.

And just how do Americans feel about Roe?

Beyond just agreeing on ancillary issues like adoption or help for women in crisis pregnancies, surveys have found common ground among Americans on the issue of abortion itself.

The Pew survey found that only 18% favored legalized abortion “in all cases,” 28% said it should be legal in “most cases,” 28% said it should be “illegal in most cases,” and 16% said it should be illegal in all cases.

That is, 72% of Americans oppose unrestricted abortion; only 18% are in favor.

The even more recent Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans now identify themselves as “pro-life.” Overall, it — like the Pew survey — found that 76% of Americans disagree with of the Roe regime of unrestricted abortion, while only 22% agree.

Taken together, these polls show that Americans, by a more than 3:1 margin, want restrictions on abortion — a remarkable, if largely unnoticed consensus.

A more detailed survey of Americans’ opinions on abortion several months ago revealed just how deep this consensus among Americans runs. In October 2008, a Knights of Columbus-Marist poll was taken in which the number of those identifying as “pro-choice” was slightly greater than those who called themselves “pro-life.”

Looking back, it accurately predicted the growing consensus we see today on abortion by asking very specific questions about the respondents’ views.

By giving a wide range of options on the subject, here’s what the survey found: Only 8% of Americans agreed with abortion “any time during a pregnancy,” and another 8% supported abortion only during the first six months. But 84% of Americans wanted more significant restrictions.

Sonia Sotomayor has had little to say about abortion, and, of course, as the Senate considers her for the Supreme Court, a small but vocal group will push for her to declare herself a Roe apologist.

But seeking such a litmus test would continue the legacy of a court decision at odds with the moral sense of the American people and would fail to capture the moment or to build real common ground on abortion.

Moving beyond Roe’s limitless breadth in law and in politics generally wouldn’t just make political sense — and moral sense — it would be a real change that Americans have been waiting for.

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Carl Anderson is the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus and a New York Times bestselling author.

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