Of all the U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century, two are perhaps the best known: Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Roe v. Wade (1973).
So important are these two cases that it was no accident that in a recent speech to graduates at Notre Dame University, President Barack Obama based many 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 Americans had embraced the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education — the case that ended the legal sanction of racial segregation in the United States.
At the time, three and a half decades after the case, acceptance of the ideal of racial equality had grown steadily, and it was clearly embraced by the vast majority of Americans. This is even more the case today.
Yet, if Brown was almost universally accepted by the American people, the opposite is true of Roe v. Wade — the decision that legalized abortion.
More than three and a half decades after Roe, Americans are increasingly — and overwhelmingly — opposed to its legacy. As much as Americans have embraced Brown, they have moved further and further away from Roe, which has since been interpreted to allow abortion without restrictions.
Just how do Americans feel about Roe? Beyond just agreeing on ancillary issues like adoption or help for women in crisis pregnancies, recent surveys have found common ground on the issue of abortion itself.
In April, a Pew survey found that only 18 percent favored legalized abortion “in all cases.” Twenty-eight percent said it should be legal in “most cases,” 28 percent said it should be “illegal in most cases,” and 16 percent said it should be illegal in all cases.
In short, 72 percent of Americans oppose unrestricted abortion; only 18 percent are in favor.
An even more recent Gallup poll (May 2009) found that a majority of Americans now identify themselves as “pro-life.” It confirmed the results of the Pew survey, finding that 76 percent of Americans disagree with the Roe regime of unrestricted abortion, while only 22 percent agree.
Taken together, these polls show that Americans, by a ratio of almost 3-to-1, want at least some restrictions on abortion — a remarkable, if largely unnoticed consensus.
A more detailed survey of Americans’ opinions on abortion last October revealed just how deep this consensus runs. A Knights of Columbus-Marist poll was conducted when the number of those who identified themselves as “pro-choice” was still slightly greater than those who called themselves “pro-life.”
Looking back, the poll accurately predicted the growing consensus we see today by asking very specific questions. By giving a wide range of options on the subject, here’s what the survey found: Only 8 percent of Americans agreed with abortion “any time during a pregnancy,” and another 8 percent supported abortion only during the first six months. But 84 percent of Americans wanted more significant restrictions.
In the future, there will doubtless be those who push for a pro-abortion political litmus test for key positions in government. They should remember that the legacy of Roe v. Wade is fundamentally at odds with the moral sense of the American people. Moreover, clinging to an anachronistic litmus test also fails both to capture the moment and to build real common ground on abortion.
Moving beyond Roe’s limitless breadth in law and politics makes both political and moral sense, and is also something that the vast majority of U.S. citizens agree on. As members of an organization that from its earliest days stood for the marginalized, we, as Knights, must continue our tireless work for the dignity of every human person — born and unborn, young and old, regardless of race or creed. Our faith and the principles of our Order require no less.