When it comes to abortion, the vast majority of Americans know what they want and what they want isn't going to please Planned Parenthood or the Vatican. What they want is compromise. What they want are shades of gray.
In a new Harris Interactive survey, only 9 percent participants agreed that the abortion should be legal for any reason at any point during a pregnancy. On the other side, only 11 percent wanted a total ban.
In between were plenty of citizens who back legalized abortion but, to one degree or another, want to see restrictions. The sponsors of the national survey were amazed.
"We remain opposed to abortion, which means we oppose any procedure that seeks to destroy the life of an unborn child. That isn't going to change," said Deidre McQuade, speaking for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. "But what we are seeing is growing evidence that most Americans do want to see abortion restricted and limited."
That's why the USCCB is hailing these results, even though most of the numbers point toward compromises that fall short of the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Looking at the extremes, the survey asked if abortion should be "illegal in all circumstances" or "legal for any reason at any time during pregnancy." But in between, participants could say that abortion should remain legal to "save the life of the mother" or legal in cases involving rape or incest. They could also say that abortion should be legal "for any reason" during the first three months or the first six months" of pregnancy.
In addition to the 11 percent who wanted a total ban, 38 percent backed efforts to restrict abortion to cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother's life. Another 33 percent endorsed limiting abortion to the first three or six months of pregnancy.
When asked if they opposed or supported specific policies restricting abortion, 88 percent of those who stated opinions backed "informed consent" laws requiring abortion providers to "inform women of potential risks to their physical and psychological health and about alternatives to abortion." Also, 76 percent of those expressing opinions favored laws that "protect doctors and nurses from being forced to perform or refer for abortions against their will" and 73 supported laws that "require giving parents the chance to be involved in their minor daughter's abortion decision."
These numbers resemble those in a 2006 survey on politics, faith and social issues produced by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. It found that "majorities of Republicans (62%), Democrats (70%) and political independents (66%)" favored some form of compromise on abortion, as did more than 60 percent of both white evangelicals and white, non-Hispanic Catholics.
Digging deeper, that Pew survey even found that 37 percent of liberal Democrats and 71 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats supported some compromise, backing abortion restrictions that would not be allowed under current interpretations of Roe v. Wade and other U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Still, it's hard to seek middle ground in an era in which both major political parties have been defined by strict, black-and-white stances on this life-and-death issue.
Tensions will also rise if President-elect Barack Obama keeps a campaign pledge he made on July 17, 2007, when he told Planned Parenthood leaders: "The first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act." Obama is a co-sponsor of this bill, which, according to the National Organization for Women, would "sweep away hundreds of anti-abortion laws (and) policies" that are already in effect.
In response, abortion opponents will argue that there is broad support in the middle of the political landscape for policies that restrict an absolute right to abortion, including laws that are on the books and others that have been proposed by many Republicans and some Democrats.
This can be seen in the new Harris survey data, said McQuade, and in other polls in recent years -- especially those charting the beliefs of young Americans.
"There is political capital there and we must stress that," she said. "We will have to seek the changes that we can make, while being realistic. We will also have to defend the laws that we already have that protect the right to life. This issue will not go away."