Gloria Steinem, the feminist author and activist, argued that abortion was "the moral equivalent of a tonsillectomy" and that the human fetus was nothing more than a "mass of dependent protoplasm." If Steinem's stated views ever enjoyed popular support, they emphatically do not do so today.
In fact, according to a recent poll by the respected Pew Research Center, the lopsided majority margin (57 percent to 37 percent) by which Americans said, just over a year ago, that abortion should be legal rather than illegal in most or all cases has now shrunk to a thin 47 percent to 44 percent plurality supporting abortion rights.
Earlier, a May 2009 Gallup Poll found that - even with a pro-abortion-rights Democrat in the White House and robust Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate - for the first time since the question had been asked a 51 percent majority of Americans called themselves "pro-life" on the abortion issue, while 42 percent self-identified as "pro-choice."
Scott Keeter, the director of research at Pew, perceives real "ambivalence" on the part of the poll's respondents on the thorny question of abortion.
Truth be told, American voters are complicated people whose consensus position, if there actually is one, on this divisive issue might best be described as simultaneously "pro-choice" and "anti-abortion." That is, there is no substantial popular support for prosecuting or imprisoning a woman who after consulting her conscience, her spiritual counselor or physician decides to seek an abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.
But by a landslide 65 percent to 26 percent number, Americans now say it would be good to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country - a 13 percent increase since 2005.
Similarly, by a four-to-one margin (76 percent to 19 percent), Americans endorse requiring women under the age of 18 to obtain the consent of at least one parent before getting an abortion.
Support for the position that abortion should be legal in all or most cases dropped in every age group among both genders in the last year, except one - males between the ages of 18 to 29.
Only a cynic would point out that males between the ages of 18 to 29 are the group most likely to be directly involved in an unplanned pregnancy - and therefore face either being legally required to pony up 18 years of child support or, maybe, sharing the onetime cost of an abortion. That just might explain this male age cohort's unflagging support for abortion rights!
The issue of abortion has receded in urgency. Just 15 percent of Americans now deem abortion to be a critical issue facing the country, a drop from the 28 percent who thought so in 2006. Three years ago, 34 percent of liberal Democrats saw abortion as a critical issue. Today, with Democrats controlling Washington, just 8 percent of liberal Democrats see it as a critical issue.
As the political maxim teaches: When the economy is bad, the economy is the only issue.
One additional reason, cited by Pew's Keeter, is the near-universality of sonograms. It is hard to use the clinical terms embryo and fetus - or to compare abortion to an appendectomy - when one can see the hands, head and toes of a baby.
Still, two out of three Americans believe "the country needs to find a middle ground on abortion laws." One positive initiative is The Pregnant Women Support Act, sponsored by Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., which could reduce the number of abortions by fully funding the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), provide counseling and shelter to women in abusive relationships, provide nurse home-visit programs for pregnant and new mothers under Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and help pregnant women stay in school, prepare for college or vocational training and learn parenting skills.
Yes, there is a price tag. But if we're serious about finding common ground on abortion, it's a good start.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.