Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from abortion: a rational look at an emotional issue (chapter 5) by R.C. Sproul, published by Reformation Trust.
Though the two camps, the pro-abortion and pro-life positions, are adamant and have a high level of certainty in their views, multitudes of people are still seeking their own conclusions in the abortion matter. Even among those who have reached a conclusion, it is frequently tentative at best. There remains an openness to be persuaded of a different view.
The fact that opinions on this issue do change can be seen in the astonishing movement in public opinion regarding abortion since 1973. I think it is safe to assume that prior to Roe v. Wade public opinion ran overwhelmingly against abortion. Through the 1970s and ‘80s, societal attitudes shifted to a much more tolerant position. From 1990 to the present, the trend has shifted back slightly, so that a slim majority of Americans now oppose unrestricted abortion on demand. Why is this?
Surely the issue has been discussed more frequently and more deeply than at any time in history. This factor might bode pessimism for the pro-life position. If increased discussion has not served to stem the tide of public opinion substantially, could it be that the case against abortion is weak and that the more we argue the pro-life position, the more ground we lose? I doubt it. Another factor may be a backlash against violence perpetrated by zealous pro-life activists. Yet another reason may be that as the discussions continue and the complexities of the issue become more apparent, more and more people seek the "safe" pro-choice position because they lack sufficient certainty to decide for either the pro-abortion or pro-life position.
Although all of these may be contributing factors, I submit that the greatest cause of the change of public opinion is the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade. There is a strong tendency among people of any nation to take their direction as to what is ethically right from what the law allows or what the society condones. The unspoken assumption is that if it is legal, it is therefore moral. Sadly, this conclusion does not reflect much sober thinking or ethical analysis, yet the syndrome is repeated in culture after culture. We still wonder how the people of Germany could have been duped into supporting the programs of Adolf Hitler, but it is a fact of history that they were. Once a decision has been reached in a nation's highest court, that decision's subsequent influence on the shaping of public opinion is enormous. We learned this painful fact in the years that followed the Supreme Court's infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision (1857), which perpetuated slavery in the United States.
United States has reversed itself on slavery, prohibition, racial discrimination, conscientious objection to wars, capital punishment, and other issues of ethics and justice. Some people regard these shifts in public policy as reflective of the dynamic character of social mores and ethics. Those who are skeptical about the possibility of discovering absolutes in the areas of justice and ethics view these shifts as part of the process of sociological evolution. Thus, contemporary community standards become the highest court of appeal, the ultimate norm of justice and ethics.
Assuming that what is legal is therefore right leads to some serious traps. The first pitfall involves a fallacy. It is identified as the argumentum ad populum, a fancy way of saying that truth is determined by counting noses (or ballots). This fallacy assumes that if a majority agrees that something is true, then it must be true. This is the type of argument that ancient astronomers forgot to tell Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo.