The absolutist voices have always dominated the abortion debate. But as it flares again in Congress and in legislatures across the country, the fight this time is heading into complicated political terrain, stirring the ambivalence that most Americans feel about the issue.
In Texas, one of the most restrictive and closely watched abortion laws in the country appears headed for passage this week after Republican Gov. Rick Perry resurrected it by calling a special session of the legislature. On Wednesday, the state House voted 96 to 49 to approve the controversial antiabortion legislation that has prompted two special sessions. The bill bans abortions after 20 weeks of gestation and imposes new limits on abortion clinics, doctors and pills. The state Senate is expected to add its approval later this week.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, another GOP governor, Pat McCrory, is threatening to veto a measure that contains some of the same provisions, saying he is concerned that its new regulations on abortion clinics might cross "a fine line between safety measures and restrictions."
Fine lines are not something activists on either side often recognize. But four decades after the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, the views of most of Americans on abortion remain complex and conditional.
"While there are very well organized and very ideological pro-life and pro-choice groups, your average citizen is in neither of these groups. He or she is in the middle," said Tom Smith, head of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, who has been tracking public sentiment on abortion since 1972.
Except in the first few years after Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, when public acceptance grew, sentiment around the issue has not moved much. Nor is there a large generational divide.