More Americans Identify As “Pro-Choice,” But That’s Only Half The Story

In a new poll, a majority of Americans identify as "pro-choice," but a deeper look at the numbers reveals that abortion politics remains as complicated as ever.

abortion-law

A new Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans identify themselves as being “pro-choice” on the issue of abortion for the first time in seven years, but it seems unlikely to have any real impact on politics:

For the first time in seven years, Americans who are “pro-choice” hold a statistically significant lead over Americans who are “pro-life.”

According to a new Gallup poll, 50 percent of Americans now call themselves pro-choice, including 54 percent of women and 46 percent of men. Only 44 percent of respondents labeled themselves pro-life, the lowest response in more than five years.

The last time pro-choice respondents held this large of a lead was 2008. In 2006, at one point, Gallup found pro-choice leading pro-life by an even larger ten percentage points, but at one point in 2012, Gallup found that pro-life respondents outweighed pro-choice respondents by 9 percentage points.

This lead evaporated entirely within six months and the difference between the sides returned to being within the margin of error. For the past five years or so, the two sides have been locked in more or less a statistical dead heat.

Now, forty-two percent of respondents said that abortions should be legal in either “most circumstances” or “under any circumstances,” while only 19 percent said that abortions should be illegal “in all circumstances.” A plurality, 36 percent, said the procedure should be legal “in only a few circumstances.”

It would likely be a mistake to draw any large conclusions from these numbers, because the politics of abortion have always been complicated in the United States. For example, as this chart shows, public opinion on the issue has varied widely in just the past twenty years:

Gallup Abortion Chart One

Furthermore, as the article above hints, once you look at the details of where the public stands beyond the broad and somewhat meaningless “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels, it becomes clear that public opinion on this issue is far more muddled than these numbers suggest. Most broadly, a majority of Americans support a position that says abortion should be legal at least in some circumstances and the number of people who believe it should be illegal under all circumstances amounts to less than 20% of the population. Inside that majority, though, there is much disagreement. Some 29% of people say that they believe that it should be legal in all circumstances, while 13% believe it should be legal in “most” circumstances and 36% believe it should only be legal in a “few” circumstances. What constitutes “most” and a “few,” of course, is something that likely varies depending on which poll respondents you’re talking to. What these numbers mean at the very least, though, is that the American public is still largely divided on the abortion issue, as divided as it has been virtually from the time that the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade. That’s not likely to change any time soon.

Another reason to take this new Gallup poll with a grain of salt is because of the fact that additional parts of the poll show that abortion is not an issue that is likely to change elections and because, generally speaking, it is one that is more important to people who identify as “pro-life” than it is to people who identify as “pro-choice. As part of the same poll, Gallup asked respondents what importance they would place on a candidate’s stance on abortion issue when deciding who to vote for in an election. While the numbers did show a slight up-tick in the number of people who considered it an important issue, it also showed that it was far from being a priority for the largest number of voters. Of the people surveyed, for example, only 21% said that the candidate must share their views on the issue, while 27% said that it was not a major issue in deciding who to vote for. The largest number of respondents, some 46%, said that abortion was merely one of a number of issues that they would consider in deciding who to vote for. Additionally, as this chart shows, the number of people who would say they would not support a candidate who didn’t share their views on abortion is higher among people identifying as “pro-life” than among people identifying as “pro-choice”:

Gallup Abortion Chart Two

In some sense then, abortion is arguably similar to the debate over gun rights and control in the way that it has an impact on the political process. As I’ve noted before, see here and here, while polling has shown that the American public supports at least some gun control measures that have been proposed, it also shows that this is a low intensity issue for most voters and that the voters who are most strongly motivated to vote for or against a candidate on gun issues are the people who support gun rights. In this case, we see something similar in that while most Americans support abortion rights in at least some cases, the people who are most strongly motivated to political action on the issue are the people who want to ban it in all circumstances. Until that changes, the politics of abortion in the United States will remain the same muddled mess they are today.

FILED UNDER: Public Opinion Polls, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    In some sense then, abortion is arguably similar to the debate over gun rights and control in the way that it has an impact on the political process.

    Funny that my first thought upon reading the headline of the post was that a whole lot of people are in favor “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” without ever contemplating the fact that that is only half of the 2nd Amendment.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    For the first time in seven years, Americans who are “pro-choice” hold a statistically significant lead over Americans who are “pro-life.”

    Maybe it wouldn’t be so complicated if you labelled the two sides appropriately; pro-choice and anti-choice.
    Seriously…who do you know that isn’t pro-life? I mean…ignoring, for clarity’s sake, supporters of wars-of-choice and the death penalty? (ironic that these same people tend to call themselves pro-life)
    It’s a ridiculous framing of the discussion that intentionally induces emotional bias.

  3. Hal_10000 says:

    If you slice the polling, you basically find that about 70% of the American people would be fine with abortion being legal up to 20-24 weeks and illegal after that except for life of the mother, etc. (and there is very little gender difference). The problem is that the debate is controlled by the people in the other 30%.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    @C. Clavin:

    It’s a ridiculous framing of the discussion that intentionally induces emotional bias.

    GOPs have always been good at that: Right to life. Death panels. Death tax. Defense of marriage. Wealthy job creators. Right to work. Etc.

    I don’t know why Dems are unable to respond with things like: Forced childbearing.

  5. C. Clavin says:

    @gVOR08:

    I don’t know why Dems are unable to respond

    I know…it constantly amazes me.

  6. MikeSJ says:

    @C. Clavin:

    The Democrats would have to find people who understand imaging, advertising, and communications in order to do a “Luntz’ on messaging.

    They could try Hollywood and various Ad Agencies for all of this but nope, they’re Democrats not Republicans.

    That’s the only explanation I can come up with for their constant never ending failure to be get their message out.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @C. Clavin: I can’t let it pass that “pro-choice” is just a way to avoid saying “pro-abortion” because nobody likes abortions, even the woman who decides she has to have one. Also, you missed the fact that a very large percentage of people who say they are “pro-life” are also pro-death….. penalty.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @gVOR08:

    GOPs have always been good at that: Right to life. Death panels. Death tax. Defense of marriage. Wealthy job creators. Right to work. Etc.

    Oh, it’s already been done: You have Pro Choice (or as I like to say- End of Forced Incubation of Fetal Material) End of Life Counseling (or as I like to say- a Come to Jesus Meeting), Inheritance Tax (or as I like to say- Get a Job MuthaF***as) Same Sex Marriage (or as I like to say- Let Them be just as Miserable as the Rest of Us), Corporate Oligarchs (or as I like to say- Leeches), Right to Work for Less (or as I like to say- Serfdom, Because They Lost that War).

  9. Rafer Janders says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Seriously…who do you know that isn’t pro-life?

    Can’t say I know him personallly, but Dick Cheney?

  10. C. Clavin says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Also, you missed the fact that a very large percentage of people who say they are “pro-life” are also pro-death….. penalty.

    Nope…check again.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    Three things are happening.

    1) Feminism is back. It’s back on equal pay and on the treatment of women in the media, and there’s some spillover to earlier feminist issues. Younger women are rediscovering their mother’s and grandmother’s fight.

    2) Anti-choice are older on average, pro-choice younger. Old people have a tendency to die.

    3) Anti-choice forces have had some success at the state level which reignites pro-choice concerns and thus fervor.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @C. Clavin: Doh!! Reading is fundamental!

  13. Kylopod says:

    @C. Clavin: I agree that many of the people who claim to be “pro-life” do not seem “pro-life” on other issues.

    But guess what? The same could be said about liberals and the “pro-choice” label. Do you really think liberals always support greater choice on every public policy?

    In general, Republicans have been better than Democrats at coming up with framing devices, including all those notorious Luntz coinages. But on the abortion issue, it’s basically a tie. Both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are little more than framing devices that avoid stating outright what the issue is really about (a woman’s right to get an abortion) and instead adopt some vague ideal that few people apply consistently to all issues.

  14. Monala says:

    @michael reynolds: Some of it may also be that the anti-choice forces overplay their hand with things such as Personhood Amendments. When people (and women in particular) realize that women could be jailed for miscarriages or engaging in anything “risky” during pregnancy (even if it occurs before they realize they are pregnant), that tends to sour a lot of people toward the anti-choice side.

  15. ernieyeball says:

    @Rafer Janders:..who do you know that isn’t pro-life?
    Henry Kissinger comes to mind…

    Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State, has taken exception to a recent column of mine. It noted that 20,492 Americans died in Vietnam while he and Richard Nixon made policy on the war, in the years 1969-72. It quoted H. R. Haldeman’s diaries as saying that on Dec. 15, 1970, Mr. Kissinger objected to an early peace initiative because there might be bad results before the 1972 election.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/06/opinion/abroad-at-home-the-lying-machine.html