The pro-life movement in the United States is young and getting younger.

This is an inconvenient fact for media types who’d prefer a different image and an especially bitter pill for the aging abortion lobby to swallow.

But now there’s a group of very young pro-lifers making big headlines in Britain: premature babies. According to British press reports, more babies born very prematurely are surviving, and this good news is shaking the foundation of British abortion law.

Research at University College London Hospital shows that babies born between 22 and 25 weeks gestation are surviving at dramatically higher rates today than ever before. In 1981, only 32% of extremely premature babies survived. By 2000, the survival rate had climbed to 71%.

But these youngsters pose a problem for the abortion establishment in Great Britain. British law allows abortion without a medical reason for up to 24 weeks gestation, and the preemies have sparked a national debate about changing the 20-year-old law.

Here in the United States, such a debate would be meaningless because of Roe v. Wade.

Roe mandated that abortion remain legal at all points in pregnancy, even without a medical reason; it granted abortion doctors the power to nullify any restriction at any time based on “emotional” reasons for the abortion. Because of this, we have the most permissive abortion law in the world.

In an interview after the 2008 March for Life, a reporter seemed perplexed about my optimism over public opinion on abortion. Most people think abortion should be legal. Shouldn’t I feel defeated?

Reporters tend to see abortion as an all-or-nothing proposition: If you think abortion should be legal then you support Roe v. Wade, if not, you oppose it. But Americans’ views on abortion are highly fact-specific.

Is the mother’s life at risk without an abortion? Is the abortion for financial reasons? Is the baby’s heart beating? Circumstances matter.

The annual CBS News opinion poll on the legality of abortion gives people the following choices:

1. It should be permitted in all cases.

2. It should be permitted, but subject to greater restrictions than it is now.

3. It should be permitted only in such cases as rape, incest and to save the woman’s life.

4. It should only be permitted to save the woman’s life.

5. It never should be permitted.

For the last three years, 70% of people chose answers 2 through 5. That means 70% of Americans disagree with Roe v. Wade.

Under Roe, abortion cannot be prohibited or limited to cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. And for those who want “greater restrictions” on abortion, Roe v. Wade stands in their way.

In the decades since Roe legislatures have passed numerous and varied abortion restrictions only to see judges strike them down as incompatible with Roe v. Wade.

Roe permits narrow regulation, like waiting periods, informed consent and parental involvement requirements, but not proscriptive measures.

Even the ban on partial-birth abortion is a regulation on the use of one abortion method; it does not ban late-term abortions. In fact, the Supreme Court was willing to restrict this one method only because other late-term methods remain available.

There is no British equivalent to Roe v. Wade, so defenders of British abortion law find themselves in a fight against the facts.

Each preemie born is a new threat to the old system, and each who survives becomes an unanswerable argument for changing it. In the end, defenders of the old law will have to concede the illogic of the legal line they’ve drawn and defend their law on pure ideology.

Some already have, like professor David Field, president-elect of the British Association of Perinatal Medicine: “The viability of premature babies and abortion are completely different arguments that have been muddled up,” he said. “You either believe in abortion or you don’t.”

The future of abortion in America will be determined by the next president of the United States. That person will appoint justices who further entrench the legal fallacy of Roe v. Wade or who correct it.

Only the latter will restore the right of Americans to govern themselves on the most important human rights issue of our day.  

Cathy Ruse is the senior fellow

for legal studies at the

Family Research Council.