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ATTITUDES BECOMING MORE NEGATIVE ON ABORTION

WASHINGTON -- More than one-fifth of Americans surveyed say they're less in favor of abortion today than they were a decade ago -- and that's nearly twice the number who say they've become more pro-choice.

That's just one of several findings of a nationwide and local Buffalo News poll that tried to explore the deepest feelings people have about abortion, nearly 30 years after it became legal.

The poll shows that personal experience has a major influence on opinions about abortion -- and it also upends some common stereotypes about the debate. To be specific:

The poll hints at a slight trend against abortion, even though two-thirds of Americans and Western New Yorkers say their views on abortion haven't changed in the past 10 years.

The youngest people tend to be more opposed to abortion than the baby boomer generation.

People lean more against abortion on a personal level than on a political level. Only 38.7 percent of respondents locally said their feelings against abortion affect the way they vote. But two-thirds said that if someone close to them were considering an abortion, they would advise against it.

While Western New York has long been seen as a hotbed of abortion protests, the poll shows that local views on abortion mirror views nationwide.

Zogby International conducted the poll of 1,009 people nationwide, and 800 in Erie and Niagara counties, from Nov. 12 to 14. On both the national and local levels, the poll found the abortion issue to be much more complex in people's hearts than it is in the streets outside the clinics.

"People have personal ambivalence about abortion; they have conflicted views," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Michelman characterized the poll as dealing with personal matters, and not reflecting the fact that more Americans label themselves pro-choice than pro-life. But she admitted that on a personal level, those labels sometimes don't fit.

"We see some people with pro-choice views mixed with anti-choice views," she said.

The poll seemed to prove just that. Most notably, about one-third of those surveyed said their views on abortion had changed in the past decade.

Both nationally and locally, about 22 percent said they were less in favor of abortion today than they were a decade ago. About half that number said they were more in favor of it.

Technology might be one reason for that change, as it has allowed people to see life in the womb, said Laura Echevarria, spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee.

"Everyone has seen a sonogram now," she said. "In 1973, they were almost unheard of."

For many of the three dozen poll respondents interviewed for this story, though, their own life experiences influenced their changing views.

Michael Moore of Orchard Park never thought much about abortion until he married a woman who had had one. Now, though, he thinks about it a lot -- and he thinks it's wrong.

His first wife's abortion "was a continuing problem for her psychologically," said Moore, who later divorced and moved to the Buffalo area to remarry.

Moore's second wife, Linda, is Catholic, and that fact and his previous wife's experiences combined to change his mind.

"I don't believe in abortion, because I've seen how it can affect people's lives," said Moore, 51. "I don't believe it should be a form of birth control. But I can't bring myself to say there can't be abortion in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the mother is threatened."

Then again, when Moore's daughter came to him a couple of years ago and told him she was pregnant, he wasn't about to tell her what to do. He simply offered his support, and she decided on her own to have the baby.

"My views have even sharpened since my granddaughter was born," Moore said.

Similarly, Aimee Caverly of Raleigh, N.C., went from pro-choice to pro-life after she became a mother.

"After seeing a heartbeat at eight weeks gestation, how could anyone do that?" asked Caverly, 30, who gave birth to her second daughter last week. "People do that out of ignorance, not knowing it's a life."

In some cases, life experiences have even made pro-choice advocates a bit more wary.

Tracy Beale of Buffalo gave birth to a daughter four years ago, when she was 43. And that changed something deep inside Beale, who used to work for Planned Parenthood.

"I haven't changed my opinion as to whether abortion should be available or not," Beale said. "But having a child certainly changed my view of whether I could ever have one."

Such sentiments probably explain the poll's finding that some people are becoming more doubtful about the practice of abortion, said Stasia Zoladz Vogel, president of the Buffalo Regional Right to Life Committee.

"We have an aging population," Vogel said. "And as you age, you get a better appreciation for life-and-death issues and the fact that some things are absolutely irrevocable."

Many middle-aged and older poll respondents did say that they had become more conservative on the abortion issue -- but some bucked that trend.

"I'm not advocating that everyone aborts his or her child, but nobody else but the mother who carries her baby should make that important and painful decision," said John C. Boot, 66, of Buffalo.

Somewhat surprisingly, the youngest poll respondents were among the most conservative.

Nationwide, one-third of people ages 18 to 29 said abortion should never be legal. That contrasts with about 23 percent for those ages 30 to 64, and about 20 percent for those over age 65.

That finding flies in the face of much other polling data on the abortion issue, but it didn't surprise young people such as Simone Baldwin of Buffalo.

Baldwin got pregnant at 17 and decided to keep her baby, who's now a happy and healthy 5-year-old named Airianna.

"Abortion is just not right," Baldwin said. "I didn't come from that kind of family."

Then again, some young people have become more pro-choice. Dustin Eckberg, 20, of Elgin, Ill., didn't have much of an opinion about abortion until his grandmother started talking about how important it was as an option for some women.

And then he learned that his own mother had used that option, when money was tight and the family figured out it couldn't support a third child.

"There's nothing wrong with being pro-life," he said. "If you feel that it's wrong, then by all means you shouldn't take part in it. But for a woman, it is her body, and she should be able to go through with it if that's what the situation calls for."

Eckberg may be a bit of an anomaly, given that many young people haven't had such a personal encounter with the abortion issue. In fact, pro-choice advocates said the lack of such experiences might explain why the youngest generation may not be quite as pro-choice as the baby boomers.

"I had a very dear friend who could not have children after having an illegal abortion," said Judy Schunk, 51, of Springville. "She was basically butchered, turned out into the street, literally bleeding. That's how it was when abortion was illegal."

Schunk said abortion rights is one of the most important issues she considers when she votes. But only about 4 percent nationwide, and 5 percent in the Buffalo area, said they always vote for pro-choice candidates. About 13 percent nationally and 12 percent locally said they always vote for anti-abortion candidates.

Far more people -- one-third of those surveyed in the Buffalo area -- said abortion makes no difference when they vote.

Asked about the politics of abortion, several poll respondents said they view this as a personal issue, not a political one.

"Abortion is one of many issues I look at," said Cynthia Hillman, 32, of Middleport. "You've got to consider taxes and all that sort of thing, too."

On a personal level, though, Hillman is much more passionate.

"I had a friend who was pregnant and had to be in a wedding, and she said she wanted to get an abortion because she couldn't fit into her dress," Hillman said. "We haven't spoken much since then. I can't believe she did that."

Despite her pro-choice views, Hillman has never protested abortion or given money to a pro-life group. And in that, she's typical: A vast majority from the Buffalo area and nationwide said they never got involved in the abortion issue in that way, on one side or the other.

That's just one way in which the Buffalo area mirrors the nation at large on the abortion issue. Despite the area's large Catholic population and its reputation as a center of anti-abortion activism, almost all the local poll results are within the margin of error of the national results.

Dana P. Neitlich, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Buffalo and Erie County, offered two possible explanations of those parallel poll results.

For one thing, she said, many Catholics come to their own views on the abortion issue no matter what the church says. For another, Buffalo's pro-life-leaning reputation may be work of the outsiders, such as the organizers of the 1992 Spring of Life and James C. Kopp, who recently admitted killing Dr. Barnett A. Slepian, an Amherst abortion provider.

Neitlich also noted that abortion is a heartfelt issue that may not be easily translated into the narrowly sliced questions and answers of any poll.

Cory Barry, a law student at the University at Buffalo, is proof of that. He has moved in the opposite direction of many, becoming moderately pro-choice despite his Catholic upbringing -- but, like many poll respondents, he admitted to feeling a bit conflicted.

"I see both sides of the issue," he said. "Both sides have good arguments."

TABLES: ATTITUDES ON ABORTION
Buffalo news poll shows Erie and Niagara counties nearly mirror the nation on the abortion issue

Q: How have your feelings on abortion changed in the past 10 years?

Much more or slightly more in favor

Nationwide 11.3%

Erie/Niagara 11.2%

Much less or slightly less in favor

Nationwide: 21.5%

Erie/Niagara 22.3%

No change

Nationwide 65.5%

Erie/Niagara 65.4%

Not sure

Nationwide 1.7%

Erie/Niagara 1.1%

Q: When should abortion be permitted?

Never

Nationwide 24.5%

Erie/Niagara 24.1%

Only in the cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother

Nationwide: 36.7%

Erie/Niagara 37.4%

For other reasons where it's clear an abortion is needed

Nationwide 14.9%

Erie/Niagara 15.5%

Always

Nationwide 21.8%

Erie/Niagara 20.8%

Not sure

Nationwide 2.9%

Erie/Niagara 2.2%

Q: If someone close to you said she wanted an abortion, how would your react?

Tell her she should not do it under any circumstances

Nationwide 32.7%

Erie/Niagara 27.3%

Advise against it, but stress it's her decision

Nationwide: 34.7%

Erie/Niagara 41.2%

Listen and offer no advice

Nationwide 9.3%

Erie/Niagara 11.8%

Advise her to get the abortion if she thinks it's best

Nationwide 19.1%

Erie/Niagara 15.1%

Not sure

Nationwide 4.2%

Erie/Niagara 4.6%

SOURCE: Zogby International poll of 1,000 voters nationwide and 800 in Erie and Niagara counties. Margin of error for the nation figures is /- 3.2 percent. The margin of error for the local figures is /- 3.6 percent.

News Washington Bureau assistant Diana C. Moore contributed to this report.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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