Colorado is not the most conservative state. Nor is it the most liberal. It's one of the few states in which elections are consistently competitive in recent years. But it has some pretty substantial social conservative cred within its borders. While Denver and Boulder might be oases of liberal godlessness, Colorado Springs and…well, everywhere else in the state is virtually synonymous with the Christian right. It was unsurprising, then, that it was the first state to put a version of the Federal "Human Life Amendment" – outlawing all abortion, defining conception as the beginning of life, conferring personhood on fetuses, and banning some forms of birth control – to vote as a ballot measure in 2008. What was surprising is how thoroughly the amendment was defeated at the ballot box. I am not a betting man, but I would not have put money on the No vote winning nearly 3 to 1 in James Dobson's backyard.
Encouraged by this remarkable success, I guess, a similar measure is being put to a vote in Florida next year (assuming the backers can round up the necessary signatures). Since state law requires a 60% vote to pass an amendment via referendum, the odds of success where Colorado's evangelical all-stars failed are diminutive. The inability to pass these measures is illogical given the fact that we are supposed to be a nation bitterly divided, 50-50, on legal abortion. Right?
Polling shows that Americans appear to consider themselves Pro Life and Pro Choice in roughly equal numbers, with a tilt toward the latter. Human Life Amendments, however, are not 50-50 affairs. Gallup's polling provides some insight by asking people if they support legal abortion in any circumstances, in no circumstances, or in some cases but not others. Here we see a split of about 1 in 5 Americans taking each of the absolutist positions – always legal, always illegal – and a whopping 60% picking the least helpful answer. What does "In some circumstances" mean?
It could mean one favors exceptions only for rape, incest, or imminent death of the mother. It could mean one favors first trimester availability but nothing after. It could mean one supports abortion for adults but with restrictions for women under 18. Or it could mean that one wants to leave the door open – moral indignation aside – just in case. Going to a private Catholic high school taught me a very important lesson: public schools have teenage mothers and Catholic schools have girls whose parents get them hushed-up abortions. Since I was old enough to form an opinion on the issue, I have always believed that the vast majority of Americans are publicly Pro Life and privately quite amenable to the Pro Choice viewpoint "in certain circumstances." Namely their own. Mom and Dad may cover the Camry with Pro Life bumper stickers and maintain a high profile at their church, but when Mary gets knocked up the summer before leaving for college they take a more open-minded view of the question.
So I read "in certain circumstances" as "In case I/my wife/my daughter needs one." Or, as a great article stated many years ago, "The only moral abortion is my abortion." Perhaps I read too much into it. Maybe the Human Life Amendment failed, and will fail again, because it takes the extra step of banning oral contraception, a step that some legit Pro Lifers might consider too extreme. But I have never been able to shake the feeling that the answer lies in our remarkable propensity for A) saying one thing and doing another and B) making exceptions for ourselves when speaking in moral absolutes. It would not be difficult to outlaw abortion, and when the GOP had control of every branch of government they didn't do it. Politically, they find it more valuable as a carrot to fire up rural America than as a serious issue on their legislative agenda. Practically, maybe they and their Pro Life base subconsciously want to keep the option around. You know, just in case.