Abortion Support: A Trend Away?

Oct 1, 2009 5:12pm

The Pew Research Center’s out today with poll results indicating a decline in support for legal abortion this year. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson said, but I’d still like to see more of it behind this argument.

In Pew polls in April and August, 46 percent and 47 percent, respectively, favored legal abortion; 44 and 45 percent opposed it. That’s a lot closer than their 2008 average, 55-39 percent support.

The problem: These two Pew results don’t match other polls that asked the same question this year. Support for legal abortion was 55-43 percent when we polled on it in June, 52-44 percent in an AP/GfK poll also in June and 52-41 percent in a Quinnipiac poll (among registered voters) in April. Our June 21 result almost exactly matched our long-term average in polls since 1995, 56-42 percent. Looks like this:

                 Legal in all   Illegal in all    No                  or most cases   or most cases   opin.8/27/09 Pew          47%             45           86/21/09 ABC/Post     55              43           26/1/09  AP/GfK       52              44           54/27/09 Quinn. (RV)  52              41           74/21/09 Pew          46              44          10

Quinnipiac’s number was 57 percent in 2008, but 54 percent in 2007 and 53 percent in a poll it did in 2004. We’ve had it as low as 49 percent in a 2001 poll (and 59 percent the same year, go figure), so these numbers can move around. Indeed there’s been variability in recent polls asking people if they think of themselves as “pro-choice” or “pro-life” (as I’ve suggested, I imagine a lot think of themselves as both).

It is notable that Pew's gotten mid-40s twice this year. Nonetheless, I’d sure like more consistency across polls to call it a trend – especially given other recent data.

In a question we asked in June, for example, 60 percent said they’d want Sonia Sotomayor to vote to uphold Roe v. Wade if it came before the Supreme Court – very similar to the average (63 percent) when we asked this question four times (re Samuel Alito and John Roberts) in 2005. In somewhat different questions in CNN and CBS/NYT polls in May and June, 68 and 64 percent, respectively, did not want to see the high court overturn (or, in CNN’s phrasing, “completely overturn”) Roe – matching the high in occasional askings by CNN since 1989.

Looking around for other results, we’ve noticed that The Washington Post asked this same question in polls it’s done in Virginia this summer. It had 55-42 percent support for legal abortion there in mid-August, again very near the average in Virginia polls it’s done since 2000. (That is, admittedly, just Virginia.)

We have seen some shifting in views on other social issues, as we reported in April – some in a more conservative direction, others more liberal. We may be in a period of some changeability as people reassess these positions with the Democrats in power, one of the suggestions Pew’s making.

Pew calls on other results to support its case for a change in views on abortion. But one doesn’t seem to help: Ninety-three percent in its poll say their view on abortion hasn’t changed in the past year or so; 1 percent report moving to a more restrictive position, 3 percent to a more permissive one.

In sum, the Pew Center as usual has put out cogent analysis of interesting results. But whether we’ve got a reliable trend away from support for legal abortion is a question that, to my mind, awaits further data.

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