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On Roe anniversary, support for reproductive rights grows

Exactly 40 years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade ruling. In a 7-2 decision, the court majority decided that Americans have a constitutional right to privacy, which includes being able to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

As you've probably noticed, it's been the subject of some controversy ever since, but as the right's efforts to end reproductive rights intensify, public support for the court precedent is growing.

As the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision takes place on Tuesday, a majority of Americans -- for the first time -- believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

What's more, seven in 10 respondents oppose Roe v. Wade being overturned, which is the highest percentage on this question since 1989.

"These are profound changes," says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted this survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart and his colleagues.

I put together the chart shown above, showing the results of polling from the last quarter-century on the Roe ruling. Though a majority of Americans have consistently opposed overturning the decision, note the trend lines -- support for Roe keeps growing.

The same poll asked respondents, "Which comes closest to your view on abortion: abortion should always be legal, should be legal most of the time, should be made illegal except in cases of rape, incest and to save the mother's life, or abortion should be made illegal without any exceptions?"

Looking at the results (pdf), 31% believes abortion should be "always legal" -- an all-time high -- and 23% believe it should be "legal most of the time." The combined 54% majority reflects the strongest support for reproductive rights ever seen in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Consider the perspective of the Republican pollster who helped conduct the survey.

McInturff adds that the abortion-related events and rhetoric over the past year -- which included controversial remarks on abortion and rape by two Republican Senate candidates, as well as a highly charged debate over contraception – helped shaped these changing poll numbers.

"The dialogue we have had in the last year has contributed ... to inform and shift attitudes."

I suspect there's something to this. Shifting public attitudes are likely the result of many factors, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Republican agenda in 2012 -- including both policy proposals and over-the-top rhetoric -- helped remind the American mainstream of the reproductive rights they don't want to see taken away.

In other words, Akin, Romney, Mourdock, and Ryan may have inadvertently help deliver a much-needed wake-up call about freedoms that hung in the balance.