According to a poll taken by Michael Hooper, a Temple University associate professor of political science who has been surveying attitudes on abortion for a decade, there is only one thing for certain about the way the vast majority of people feel about abortion.
"They're deeply ambivalent," Hooper said.
Although both sides in the debate say polls conducted for the other side cannot be trusted, Hooper said he was "scrupulously careful" to write his survey questions objectively. He did not conduct the poll for anyone but
himself and his students.
The poll used random digit-dialing telephone interviews with 684 Philadelphians and asked respondents about major provisions of the abortion- control bill passed recently by the House and Senate and signed into law on Friday by Gov. Casey.
When asked the general question of whether abortion should be legal, 67.1 percent of those respondents in Hooper's poll said it should be, with 48.1 percent saying they felt "very strongly" that abortion should be legal. Only 26.7 percent said abortion should not be legal, with 19 percent feeling that ''very strongly." The rest were undecided or said they did not know; the poll's margin of error was 4 percent.
But when asked about provisions in the Pennsylvania bill, the responses, considering Philadelphians' support for legal abortion, were surprising, even to Hooper.
Consider the following:
* 71.8 percent approved of a 24-hour postponement before a woman could have an abortion (and the question was framed, if anything, somewhat favoring a negative response since it did not say the waiting period would be used to inform women of medical risks, which it will, but about "alternatives to abortion").
* 68.7 percent favored requiring women to notify their husbands before having an abortion. Almost half, 47 percent, of those who supported a spousal notification provision were women.
* 63 percent said they believe abortion should be prohibited if the fetus is viable except in certain cases, such as if the woman's life is endangered, the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, or the fetus is believed to have a severe disability. (A section of the legislation prohibits abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy. It does not include exceptions for rape, incest or severe fetal disabilities but would allow abortion to save the life of the mother and for limited health considerations, namely to avert "substantial and irreversible impairment of major bodily function.")
* 53.4 percent said abortions for sex selection of a child should be banned.
No poll is perfect, and no doubt many will argue with Hooper's results even though the poll appears to have striven for impartiality and asked about specifics in the Pennsylvania legislation. But there is little question that it is suggestive of a general attitude on the part of the public, and that is an attitude that differs from the rhetoric of the activists on both sides of the issue.
Simply put, most people do not feel abortion is murder. And most people do not believe the government has no business at all telling women what to do with their bodies.
It also appears to blunt the argument that members of the Pennsylvania legislature - despite its relatively inordinate male makeup - do not truly represent the people of Pennsylvania on the issue.
During a recent public hearing on the anti-abortion measure, Rep. Paul McHale (D., Lehigh) was the only legislator who acknowledged that he holds a ''moderate, middle-ground" position on abortion.
"I think it is completely reasonable, though it is rejected by the interest groups, to protect a woman's right to choose in the early stages of pregnancy and government's right to protect a fetus' right to life in the late stages," McHale said.
"The theory has been you must choose between the two. I think that theory is invalid and out of step with the vast majority of the public," he said.
Evidently, more people agree with McHale about abortion, even though most of the media attention on the issue goes to Rep. Stephen Freind (R., Delaware), the legislature's leading abortion opponent, and Rep. Karen A. Ritter (D., Lehigh), its abortion rights leader.
Some of those involved in the battle over abortion think McHale's is a naive viewpoint. Abortion-rights activists, for instance, say it is a useless exercise to analyze the required 24-hour waiting period because that provision is not intended so much to inform women about abortion as it is to harass them.
Some also contend that the public will accept certain provisions of Freind's legislation because they do not fully understand them or their intent, one of which is to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision protecting women's right to abortion.
Nevertheless, according to the poll of Philadelphians, the public can live with the latest restrictions. And, other surveys suggest that rural residents tend to be even more receptive to abortion constraints.
However, the poll also suggests one other thing: There is a limit to how much the public - which, remember, favors legal abortion - will tolerate.
According to Hooper's poll, 88.5 percent believe abortion should be permitted if a woman's health is endangered. This sentiment was perhaps evident when Freind, just days before submitting his bill for a vote in the House, made several changes to slightly weaken a provision to bar abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Originally, the measure prohibited all such abortions except when necessary to save the mother's life. It was later changed to include cases, although very limited ones, in which a mother's health was threatened.
Abortion-rights supporters tried to broaden that health exception when the bill reached the floor. Even though the amendments eventually failed, some of the votes were close .
Hooper's poll also showed that 76.3 percent support abortion in cases where the fetus has serious defects. Freind may have gotten away with going too far on that one - his bill does not allow for such abortions after 24 weeks.
The survey further shows that although most will tolerate some government restrictions on abortion, they do not want the right to abortion taken away. A total of 65.4 percent said they would support an amendment to the state constitution that "guarantees a woman's right to have an abortion."
And there's one other thing. Although the majority of the people may not be the ones doing all the talking, they do want their voices heard. Hooper's poll shows the public, by a 3-1 ratio, wants a referendum on abortion.