Public Opinion on Abortion: No Easy Answer

May 18, 2009 8:14am

Just on cue with President Obama’s visit to Notre Dame yesterday, public opinion on abortion is looking even more conflicted than usual. As the president himself suggested, it’s a highly fraught subject – and one of those on which a single polling number does not begin to describe the complexity of Americans’ attitudes.

The result most prominently making the rounds right now is a Gallup poll in which more people call themselves "pro-life" than "pro-choice," by 51-42 percent, a first since Gallup started asking the question in 1995. But that’s not a new result in other polls, nor is it one in which all recent data are consistent. And in any case this question is not a test of policy preferences; that approach gets a different kind of answer.

While Gallup gets a 51-42 percent "pro-life" vs. "pro-choice" division, a CNN poll that asked the same question last month got a 45-49 percent split – slightly more for “pro-choice.” Moreover, CNN had it 50-45 percent – more for “pro-life” – back in May 2007. Thus this is a measure on which sentiment moves around a bit, and one on which something like Gallup’s current result has been seen before, by CNN two years ago.

This question, in any case, is essentially message testing, not policy testing. The reality is that most people are both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” (both highly charged terms) at once. Public opinion on abortion is complicated, even conflicted, and heavily dependent on circumstances. Most people think it’s between a women and her doctor, but most also object to it on moral grounds; many accept it when it’s needed, but not as a casual matter. This has been so for many years.

Since many people have both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” sentiments simultaneously, the recent inconsistent readings (more below) could reflect a sense that with Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, over-liberalization rather than over-restriction is the greater current risk. It could also reflect a gearing-up related to the pending vacancy on the Supreme Court. It’ll take more data to know.

Our own standard, policy-based question asks people if they think abortion should be legal in all or most cases or illegal in all or most cases. We last asked it in September and got a net 57-39 percent legal-illegal, about the average since 1995. A Quinnipiac poll asked it last month and got 52-41 percent legal-illegal. That 52 percent is a new low for Quinnipiac, but not significantly. It was 53 percent in 2004.

Pew, however, asked this same question last month, and found a closer 46-44 percent legal-illegal split, compared with 54-41 percent in August.

Gallup itself asks the policy question differently; it has 53 percent saying abortion should be legal "only under certain circumstances," 22 percent legal in all circumstances and 23 percent illegal in all circumstances. It’s had legal in "certain circumstances” both higher and lower in the past.

The crux, perhaps, is what those circumstances are; we tested a variety of them in our 30-year Roe vs. Wade poll back in 2003, with quite a range of responses. See the results here.

In the end, the instability across the current polls is unusual, and tough to pin down. It could mean a reassessment is under way – we’ve seen recent change in other social attitudes, some in a more conservative direction, others in a more liberal one. It could reflect the growing polarization we see in political views more generally. It could, again, be related to the current situation in Washington.

So what’s the best approach to understanding current attitudes on abortion? The first is to steer away from firm conclusions until attitudes resolve themselves in clear and consistent measurement. The second, as ever, is to look not just at the results, but at the questions being asked – and to recognize that public opinion on such a difficult issue is far more complex than a single number can resolve.

Addendum, 5/19, 9 a.m.: A new CNN poll released after this posting underscores the reasons to proceed very cautiously with Gallup’s "pro-life" result. CNN found a substantial majority, 68 percent, saying the Supreme Court should not "completely overturn" Roe vs. Wade – matching the high in sporadic askings since 1989.

Given their conflicted views, this looks to be one issue that most people would just like left alone.

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