Why is abortion the most divisive issue in American politics?

Because Americans are fundamentally compassionate and fair-minded people. They don’t want to bully pregnant women, and they don’t want to hurt babies. What decent person wants to impose (as pro-choice advocates put it) a “forced birth” on a woman? And what caring human being wants to (as pro-lifers say) “stop a beating heart?”

No wonder Americans are so divided on abortion.

Except…. They’re not.

As Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute said on the NHJournal podcast, the center of the bell curve on abortion for American voters is for it to be legal during the first trimester and restricted after that. “A very small, small percentage of Americans believe abortion should be legal in the third trimester.”

Ask Americans if they agree with pro-choice absolutists that abortion should be legal all the way through pregnancy, and only 19 percent say yes. That’s in a Pew Research poll from March 2021, as well as in Gallup’s polling going back two decades. Support for Planned Parenthood’s position has rarely broken the 20 percent mark.

But when Pew asked Americans if they share the pro-life absolutists’ view that all abortions should be illegal, just eight percent agreed. Gallup’s number is a bit higher, with around 20 percent supporting a complete ban, but still a distinct minority.

Meanwhile, in poll after poll, 60 percent or more of Americans say abortion should generally be legal in the early days of pregnancy — particularly the first trimester — but banned later in the pregnancy. Once the third trimester is reached, some 80 percent of Americans oppose abortion.

Eighty percent. How many “80 percent” issues are there in the current political climate?

A Marist poll released in January lays out Americans’ views in more detail. It gave respondents a range of six different views of abortion, from always legal to never allowed. “Always” got just 17 percent and “never” a mere 12 percent. That leaves 71 percent of respondents somewhere in between. 

Which begs the question: if 60-70 percent of Americans are “in-between” on abortion, why aren’t more politicians in there with them? In particular, Democrats who were once the party of “safe, legal, and rare?”

In Ohio, Rep. Tim Ryan is trying to run for U.S. Senate in a red state as a Democratic moderate. But he just acknowledged last week he supports his party’s abortion without restriction position. Beto O’Rourke in deep-red Texas faces an uphill fight for the governor’s office. He just said the same thing. The front-runner for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in Joe Biden’s native state of Pennsylvania has as also staked out that political spot.

And, we learned from Jen Psaki last week, so has one-time pro-life Democrat President Joe Biden.

Which begs another question: Why are Republicans so reluctant to talk about the Democrats’ unpopular stance? On WMUR Sunday morning, Gov. Chris Sununu launched a tidal wave of words in response to Adam Sexton’s questions about New Hampshire’s middle-of-the-bell-curve abortion law. He repeated his claim that he never wanted to sign it in the first place, that he only did so to get his budget passed. He repeated his “I’m a pro-choice governor” mantra again and again.

Why? Shouting “I’m really, really pro-choice!” is hardly the way to hold Democrats accountable for their embrace of the 20 percent fringe. (It’s not a great way to run for president as a Republican, either.)

The media often portray Republicans as the abortion extremists, and there are certainly many pro-life voices who amplify the “abortion is murder” message.

But as extreme as the 15-week abortion ban at the center of the Dobbs case before the U.S. Supreme Court and the Texas “fetal heartbeat” bill may be, they aren’t as extreme as the bill before the U.S. Senate this week mandating abortion without limits at any point during a pregnancy. And virtually every Democrat in Congress has already voted for that bill at least once.

To repeat: Every Democrat in Congress, with just a couple of exceptions (Sen. Joe Manchin of W.Va., Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas) has already voted to allow late-term abortions that about 80 percent of Americans oppose. And with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) bringing the Women’s Health Protection Act back up for a vote on Wednesday, they’re going to do it again.

Are Democrats right? Is their expansive embrace of abortion the morally or ethically correct position? That is a divisive question that will be hotly debated for years to come.

But the question of whether Democrats have gotten the politics right is a no-brainer. On abortion, voters are overwhelmingly opposed to extremism. Politicians in both parties embrace it at their peril.