Will George Tiller's Murder Impact Abortion Debate?

| by Reason Foundation

Just last week, Denver Post and Reason.com columnist David Harsanyi asked, "Is The Abortion Debate Changing?"
Based on a recent Gallup Poll, which found that a majority of Americans
considered themselves "pro-life" for the first time since the question
started being asked in 1995, Harsanyi suggested "that Americans are
getting past the politics and into the morality of the issue" after
decades of legalized abortion. And, he argued, the morality of abortion
is a lot more complicated than most pro- or anti-abortion slogans let

Yesterday, in response to killing of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller,
Jacob Sullum asked why anti-abortion activists rushed to condemn the
death of a man who by their own accounts was slaughtering innocents.
Jacob understands why the activists might say that, but argues that
it's really a tactical response: That they need to distance themselves from murderous extremists.

So what do Reason
readers think? Will the killing of George Tiller push more Americans to
identify as pro-life? Or will it push voters in the other direction?
Does it matter that Tiller was known for doing late-term abortions,
which are statistically rare but gruesome?

You go back to that Gallup Poll and one thing sticks out on the basic question of whether abortion should be legal under some circumstances: Since 1976, the percentage answering yes
has been around 50 percent or higher (there are a few years where it
dipped into the high 40s). That is, it's been pretty stable at or
around a majority number.

And the percentage of people saying abortion should be illegal
under all circumstances has rarely cracked the 20 percent figure
(though it has again in recent years). Similarly, the percentage saying
abortion should be legal under all circumstances,
which peaked at 34 percent in the early 1990s, has always been a
minority position (which currently stands at 22 percent and has been
dropping lately).

I suspect that as abortion becomes rarer (as Reason's Ron Bailey pointed out in 2006,
abortion has been getting rarer since the 1990s and also occurs earlier
in pregnancies than before), it's quite possible that the either/or
positions might change, but that their movement will have little effect
on the middle position of abortion staying legal under some
circumstances. Even those, such as Harsanyi, who is plainly troubled by
the logic of abortion, generally concede that prohibition would cause
more problems than it would fix ("I also believe a government ban on
abortion would only criminalize the procedure and do little to mitigate
the number of abortions.").

Back in 2003, on the occasion of Roe v. Wade's 30th anniversary, I argued that regarding abortion the country had reached a consensus that

little to do with morality per se, much less with enforcing a single
standard of morality. It's about a workable, pragmatic compromise that
allows people to live their lives on their own terms and peaceably
argue for their point of view....

This isn't to say that the
debate about abortion is "over"-or that laws governing the specifics of
abortion won't continue to change over time in ways that bother ardent
pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike. But taking a longer view,
it does seem as if the extremes of the abortion debate - extremes that
included incendiary language (including calls for the murder of
abortion providers) - have largely subsided in the wake of a widely
accepted consensus. Part of this is surely due to the massive increases
in reproduction technologies that allow women far more control over all
aspects of their bodies (even as some of those technologies challenge
conventional definitions of human life).

isn't an outcome that is particularly satisfying to activists on either
side of the issue or to people who want something approaching rational
analysis in public policy. But it's still where we're at and it's
unlikely the Tiller case will do much to move things one way or the
other. The one thing that would likely change it would be if there was
a massive shift toward later-term abortions, which seems unlikely based on long-term trendlines and technological innovations.