American Attitudes on Abortion Aren’t Set in Stone

Activists with Planned Parenthood and the Center for American Progress protest in Washington, D.C., June 28, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Writing for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum takes issue with my Corner post from earlier this week on the recent Gallup survey showing a short-term increase in Americans who describe themselves as “pro-life.” Drum notes that Gallup’s own analysis of the survey states, “Little has changed over the past year, or even over the past 10 years, in Americans’ basic outlook on abortion.” He also argues that public opinion toward life issues has remained fairly constant since the 1970s, concluding that “nothing is changing, and there’s no special reason to think it ever will.”

Drum’s analysis contains a few key flaws. For one thing, Gallup and other research groups are not always objective analysts of public-opinion trends, and they don’t always choose the best questions to accurately represent and quantify the complexity of public attitudes on abortion. Pollsters frequently ask about attitudes toward the Roe v. Wade decision, the responses to which make it appear as if Americans are more supportive of legal abortion than they are based on their responses to other questions. Polling groups nearly always ask respondents to identify as either “pro-life” or “pro-choice” — and up until ten years ago “pro-choice” nearly always outpolled “pro-life” — but they ask questions about incremental pro-life policies, such as limiting late-term abortions, considerably less often. Those types of policies tend to receive broad public support.

Meanwhile, it’s important to note how the politics and policy of abortion have changed considerably over the last 45 years, so it’s not easy to compare public attitudes today with public opinion in the 1970s. Instead, public opinion beginning in the early 1990s is an important benchmark, because it was an historic low point for the pro-life movement. In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled in Planned Parenthood v. Casey and failed to overturn Roe v. Wade. Later that year, Bill Clinton, who supported legal abortion, was elected president. Polls showed that the pro-life position was losing ground in the court of public opinion, and many on the right called for the Republican party to abandon its platform plank opposing abortion. Some Republicans believed that pro-choice GOP governors such as Bill Weld, Christine Todd Whitman, and Pete Wilson were the future of the party.

Much has changed in the past 25 years. Now, the GOP is almost uniformly pro-life at the federal level, and there is no discussion of removing the pro-life plank from the party platform. Over the same time period, the number of abortion facilities decreased, while the number of pregnancy-resource centers has increased. The abortion rate in the United States has fallen by 44 percent since 1991, in part because a higher percentage of unintended pregnancies are being carried to term. And data from a number of surveys including Gallup and the General Social Survey (GSS) show long-term, durable gains in pro-life sentiment.

Beginning in the 2000s, for instance, the GSS has found that young adults are the age demographic least supportive of legal abortion, and survey research more broadly indicates that younger Americans are more likely than older Americans to support pro-life laws such as 20-week abortion bans. Even the short-term gain in Americans identifying as “pro-life” in this year’s Gallup poll is noteworthy, examined in the context of this year’s policy debates.

Several states, including Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri, have passed legislation providing substantive legal protection for unborn human beings. Meanwhile, states such as New York, Vermont, and Illinois have enacted laws making abortion more widely accessible later in pregnancy, in some cases even defining it as a “fundamental right.” Nearly every Democratic presidential candidate has publicly opposed the Hyde amendment, which limits direct funding of abortion with taxpayer dollars. The fact that more Americans are calling themselves “pro-life” while the abortion issue is receiving so much attention in public discussion might well be evidence that arguments against abortion are resonating with the public.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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