When it comes to abortion, which political party's views are more extreme?
Unless you've spent the past week as a stowaway on NASA's new Mars rover, the approved media answer is obvious: Republicans are the abortion fanatics. Between the furor over Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" gaffe and the GOP platform language calling for a constitutional amendment to undo Roe v. Wade, the Republicans have revealed themselves to be -- so The New York Times editorialized on Wednesday -- "on the most extreme fringes of American opinion."
The platform's silence on any exemptions for rape or incest, which critics swiftly dubbed the "Akin plank," particularly stoked the flames. The GOP, declared Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, believes in "making rape victims bear their rapist's baby." The Boston Globe splashed a six-column headline across the top of Page 1: "GOP plank opposes all abortions." The views held by Republican leaders, Michael Tomaskey wrote at the Daily Beast, "are not anywhere close to being on the normal political scale."
Even some Republicans piled on. The party's former chairman, Michael Steele, told an interviewer that omitting rape and incest exceptions from an abortion ban would be "way outside [the] mainstream of American thought."
Which is true. Pollsters have been asking Americans for decades whether and under what circumstances they think abortion should be restricted. Only about 1 in 5 respondents ever say that abortion should always be illegal. When asked directly whether abortion should be permitted if a pregnancy results from rape or incest, huge majorities – usually around 75 percent – say yes.
Moreover, only a minority of Americans favors amending the Constitution to end legalized abortion or overturn Roe v. Wade. In poll after poll, about 6 in 10 Americans express support for Roe. A GOP platform that endorses a human life amendment conferring on the unborn "a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed" – essentially a call to ban abortion, period – thus embraces a position that significant majorities of the public do indeed reject.
So Republicans are the extremists on abortion? Not so fast.
If you're like most Americans, you believe that abortion is morally wrong. You oppose abortion on demand. You think abortion should be legal only in certain circumstances. Even then you favor restrictions on its use, including 24-hour waiting periods, parental consent in the case of a minor, and requiring a married woman to notify her husband before she gets an abortion. You want late-term abortions to be prohibited, and you reject using public funds to pay for any abortions. (These are all majority opinions, reflected in numerous polls. A broad compilation of decades of polling data, "Attitudes About Abortion," is updated regularly by Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute.)
Does the Democratic Party uphold these mainstream positions? On the contrary: It rejects every one of them.
Though one-third of Democrats identify themselves as pro-life, the Democratic Party platform is strident in its defense of abortion on demand. The party "strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade," the platform avows, and abortion must be made available "regardless of ability to pay" -- that is, at public expense. The 2012 platform, in language recycled from 2008, vows to "oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine" the availability of abortion. While solid majorities of Democrats back some limitations on abortion -- 59 percent would ban partial-birth abortions, for example, and 60 percent endorse a mandatory waiting period -- the official position of their party is that even common-sense restrictions are unthinkable.
In 2000, the Democratic platform said the party's goal was "to make abortion less necessary and more rare." The 2004 platform declared, "Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare." But even calling for abortion to be "rare" is now too much for the Democrats' platform committee, which deleted the word in 2008. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, is a committee member. Or that the president of Planned Parenthood, the nation's leading abortion provider, will address the Democratic convention in North Carolina next week. That convention will renominate President Obama, who is so hardline in defense of "choice" that he even opposed a ban on sex-selection abortions.
You'd never know it from the media's coverage, but when it comes to abortion there are two political parties with out-of -the-mainstream views. Most Americans are ambivalent on the subject, both pro-life and pro-choice, against most abortions but against undoing Roe. Neither the Republican nor the Democratic platform reflects the average American's opinion in the abortion debate. Neither did the headlines and heavy breathing last week.