"Record low are 'pro-choice'" Yet 75 Percent Support Abortion Rights

A recent Gallup Poll on attitudes toward abortion is making headlines for documenting, as Politico headlines it, "Record low are 'pro-choice'."

A record-low 41 percent now identify themselves as “pro-choice,” down from 47 percent last July and 1 percentage point down from the previous record low of 42 percent, set in May 2009. As recently as 2006, 51 percent of Americans described themselves as “pro-choice.”

Meanwhile, 50 percent of Americans now consider themselves “pro-life,” one point below Gallup’s record high on the measure.

Does that presage a rollback of reproductive technologies, including abortion?

Despite what the Nancy Pelosis of the world might fear and the Rick Santorums might desire, it seems really doubtful. People support reproductive choice. As a different Politico story noted, fully 89 percent of Americans (and 82 percent of Catholics) believe that contraception is "morally acceptable."

When it comes to abortion, the percentages that believe abortion should be legal under at least some circumstances hasn't been changing very much since Gallup started asking the question back in 1975:

The total percentage of respondents who believe abortion should be legal under at least some circumstances comes in at 77 percent. That's down from a few peaks in the low 80s, but doesn't seem to be part of a major shift in one direction or another. People resolutely against abortion in all circumstances hasn't shown much sustained change either. The number has stayed in the high teens and very low 20s for a long time.

What's interesting is that downticks in "legal under any circumstances" seem to be offest by upticks in "legal only under certain circumstances." That suggests that as reproductive technologies ranging from ultrasounds to contraceptives to morning-after pills get better and more widespread, people have less tolerance for what they see as irresponsible behavior. Put another way, late-term abortion has always been more controversial than early-term abortion because people see fetal development as a continuum; the moral issues get dicier the more developed the fetus is. Virtually all abortions (90 percent) take place in the first trimester, when the fetus is less developed than it is closer to birth. Which makes sense. I've always found the bumper sticker "It's a child, not a choice" to be a strong statement. But the fact is, people are far less likely to view things that way in the early stages of a pregnancy.

As I wrote on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, treating abortion on a sliding scale doesn't comfort categorical believers who are either pro- or anti-abortion, but that sort of rough calculus seems to work well enough for the public at large, which wants abortion available but also seems willing to draw certain lines. I can only imagine (and hope) that as we gain more and more control over reproduction - it's worth remembering that contraceptive pills for unmarried women were only legalized in the early 1970s - abortion will continue to recede as a political issue. It's a serious issue but also one for which politics is particularly ill-suited. As it stands, only 1 percent of voters rate it as the top issue in the 2012 presidential race.

Abortion comes up a lot in discussions about libertarianism, in part because there doesn't seem to be an axiomatic position on the matter among libertarians (though most are clearly pro-choice). Here's a relevant clip from last year's "Ask a Libertarian" series, in which Matt Welch and I fielded questions from readers:

 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Scotch Man||

    One of the few areas where I'm completely in line with the government (well, not completely because they do fund it) but rhetorically is when it comes to abortion policy. I think folks on both sides of the issue should accept where it's at and find something else to bitch about.

  • ||

    I think folks on both sides of the issue should accept where it's at and find something else to bitch about.

    Couldn't that statement be applied to every government policy?

  • anon||

    Couldn't that statement be applied to every government policy?

    No. I do not accept where the drug policy is at and for a libertarian to quit bitching is pretty much physically impossible.

  • ||

    I agree, but how is abortion different?

  • anon||

    Than drug policy? It really isn't.

  • ||

    I think were in a agreement that Scotch Man's idea that everyone should quit bitching is retarded.

  • anon||

    Obviously. I mean, what else would feed our narcissism?

  • jacob||

    A lot of the folks on the pro-life side find it akin to murder. How can you expect people to not bitch about something they are outraged over? Or are you saying that nobody should bitch about anything?

    To me, it's like the gay marriage thing. I think there are things that are much more important to fight over, but some folks can't let it go because they feel it's "civil rights."

  • John||

    Nick,

    What it means if very simple. It means that the pro choice side has ceded all grounds of compromise. "Pro-choice" now means nothing less than abortion on demand at any point during the pregnancy.

    It is not that people have become less pro choice. It is that "pro choice" has moved away from what people actually believe.

  • Randian||

    I don't think so. I think most people want abortion legal, but they don't want anyone to get one. "pro-choice" is now synonymous with "pro-abortion", and almost no one is "pro-abortion".

  • jacob||

    OT but I took your advice and started watching Game of Thrones (least I think it was you).

    Good stuff.

  • Arf?||

    Have you read the books? GoT is one of the rare instances in which I prefer the miniseries to the book. But I'm not sure if I'd like the series as much if I hadn't read the book.

  • jacob||

    No, never read the books. I only started watching the show On-demand about 2 months ago because folks around here kept talking about it.

  • John Thacker||

    The BluRay release has pop ups and so forth for people who haven't read the books to keep track of all the characters. Not a problem for my girlfriend and me, since we've read them.

  • Arf?||

    That's pretty much my position. I am against abortion but want the choice to be with the people involved, not government mandate. That makes me "pro-life" and "pro-choice" in my book. But pro-life means anti-choice and pro-choice means pro-abortion (like you say) neither of which reflect my position.

  • Amakudari||

    My thoughts exactly. It might be interesting to break down which circumstances people consider permissible grounds for abortion, but I'd bet that, like that chart, not much has changed over those years.

  • deified||

    Few Americans share my position on abortion: Mandatory for all pregnancies.

  • Zeb||

    I'm pretty strongly for legal abortion (my personal views on the practice aside, I just think it being illegal woudl make for a worse situation than not), but I do hate the term "pro-choice" when it is generally just used as a code word in abortion debates. I'm pro-choice in most things. Lots of supporters of legal abortion, not so much. If the only things you want people to have choices in are abortion, being gay and smoking pot, then you are not all that pro-choice.

  • John Thacker||

    NARAL certainly has defined with their ratings that opposing federal funding for abortion disqualifies one as "pro-choice." That drives away group affiliation, but it doesn't change policy views.

    If you look deeper into this poll and others at questions on specific policy options, you'll find even less change.

    Someone can agree with "abortion legal under some circumstances" in a poll and mean everything from "third trimester is no good, everything else fine" to "it should be illegal except for cases of rape and incest, i.e., where the woman doesn't have responsibility." Those are pretty different positions.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Does that presage a rollback of reproductive technologies, including abortion?

    Anti-science!

  • Marshall Gill||

    Beat me to it, Fist.

    Nick, you are full of shit. This is almost as bad an article as "Journalism schools really teach logic and I should know since I attended one".

    Regardless of the moral or legal questions surrounding it, abortion isn't "reproductive technology". Indeed, it is exactly the opposite.

  • Zeb||

    How about "reproduction related technology"?

  • RBS||

    So asking what these numbers mean makes him "full of shit?"

  • John Thacker||

    The total percentage of respondents who believe abortion should be legal under at least some circumstances comes in at 77 percent.

    Yes, and it's also worth noting that the underlying views of specific policy options haven't changed so much as the group affiliations.

    And yet, the preferred policy option of the majority is for greater restrictions on abortion than we currently have. Indeed, one can equally well point out that a significant fraction of those who affiliate as pro-choice support the incremental proposals of the pro-life movement as compared to the status quo.

    About one-quarter of people claim to support abortion being totally illegal. About one-quarter favor it legal under all circumstances. The remaining half fluctuates in group affiliation, but generally favors greater restrictions than what we have now.

    No politician is proposing the sort of absolute bans that would appeal to the 20-25%. The restrictions that are being proposed-- and of course bitterly attacked by the politically active pro-choice-- are more limited in nature and designed to appeal to the majority.

    Essentially every Republican politician described as "pro-life," including, say, George W. Bush, supports things like a rape and incest exemption that would take them out of this 20-25%.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Yes, even support for a rape and incest exemption would put you in the 77%, even though you want the vast majority of abortions to be illegal.

    How does this poll help the supporters of *Roe v. Wade* and its progeny? The 52% are so far being denied the ability to put their views into law. Certainly a rape-and-incest-only law, which some of the 77% support, would be struck down instantly.

    So these polls are a one-way ratchet - if they're bad news for the choicers, then it means we need the courts to protect the fundamental right to abortion. If the polls allow some abortions, it is a point in the choicers' favor even if it's a much more prolife position than Roe.

  • Vallejo City Fathers||

    This. I'd put myself into the "some circumstances" category, and I'm easily in the "pro-life" camp.

    I think a better gauge of attitudes is to look at under which circumstances people would allow/prohibit abortion, and then report the percentage of abortions that would be restricted given those figures. I'd bet 90% would be prohibited.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    I suspect so, precisely because theyr're *not* being reported that way.

    If a majority of voters wanted to legalize a majority of abortions, it would be on page A1 of the New York Times.

  • Amakudari||

    There are states appealing to that majority. Nebraska banned abortions after 20 weeks two years ago. Last year, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina and Oklahoma followed suit, and recently Arizona did the same. It's going on, it's just that we only hear about stupidity like North Dakota's total ban.

  • #||

    The thing is with these though is that court precedent has been so lose on what constitutes health of the mother, that these laws effectively mean nothing. All someone has to say is I'd be stressed having a child and that's "health of the mother" justification for a late term abortion.

    Technically most abortions are illegal in the UK, but are de facto legal under this same kind of the framework.

  • Amakudari||

    Perhaps. I wouldn't really know.

    But it's still an edge circumstance. Something like 1% of abortions occur after 20 weeks (at least according to a quick search that put me in very pro-life site). Most of the areas being hashed out are less impactful than people think. That is, even if "health of the mother" were a very strict test, it would probably have no impact aside from speeding up a few abortions that would have taken place after 20 weeks.

    Just for one data point, 68% support abortion in the first trimester, which is indeed where 90% or so of abortions occur. I'd suspect that current policy may be less restrictive than most would like (including me) but not by much.

  • jacob||

    Perhaps I'm just spinning this because I'm a pro-lifer, but I take the graph to read that 72% of people do not agree with abortion at any time/under any circumstances. Perhaps the folks represented by the top line and the bottom line could find common ground and work at the state levels to change abortion law.

    BTW anyone else think that graph looks terrible? They couldn't have just chosen different colors?

  • niobiumstudio||

    That's another way to read it - but at the same time it means 72% of people think you should be able to get an abortion at SOME time. The problem with these polls is they never go into enough detail. I am sure the numbers for "pro-choice" would go up, if you specified it was for "pre-viable" fetuses. And I'm sure the "pro-choice" any-time abortion number went down if you told them that included babies up until the day before they are born. I have yet to see a truly comprehensive poll.

  • John Thacker||

    And then you get the interesting effect where OTOH a side will try to claim that 75% of people are "really" in their cap, but then turn around at other times and say that to be a True Pro-Whatever you have to support what the 25% wants.

  • niobiumstudio||

    I think all of that BS stems from the fact that nobody cares to do a comprehensive poll. There are dozens and dozens of positions when it comes to abortion, yet this poll only has THREE possible answers. That there is your problem.

  • The Other Kevin||

    To me, it seems that more people are taking Ron Paul's position. He is morally against abortion and refused to participate in it during medical school. But he thinks outlawing it outright would be a terrible idea.

    In other words, popular opinion (or our "culture") is changing regardless of what the law says.

  • Marshall Gill||

    In one of the debates, South Carolina IIRC, Ron Paul stated that he believed that since abortion is violence (his word) it should be legislated by the States, like other violence.

    He is also a member of Libertarians for Life a group which makes libertarian arguments against abortion.

  • Vallejo City Fathers||

    That's my view, too, from a constitutional perspective.

  • Brutus||

    Fucking joke names...how do they work?

  • John Thacker||

    Ron Paul thinks that outlawing it outright would be a terrible idea because it's unConstitutional. He is fine with state-level laws against it. His voting record on specific laws is interesting because he's voting on different principles (thus he's against funding it, but against laws that criminalize taking someone to another state to get an abortion, but he has voted in favor of partial birth abortion bans.)

    By simply being against federal funding for abortions, Ron Paul has earned a 0% rating from NARAL. But the NRLC tends to give him a mixed number.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    At present he doesn't want a federal ban, but he has consistently urged, as an end goal, a federal prolife amendment declaring that a "person" in the federal constitution is a human being from the moment of conception.

  • John Thacker||

    An amendment would make it Constitutional, yes. So he's against a federal ban for reasons of principle.

  • Zeb||

    Yay! Homicide investigations for every miscarriage.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    If euthanasia is outlawed, we'll have homicide investigations for every cancer death!

    Wait - it is outlawed, and we don't.

  • RBS||

    If a doctor is going around euthanizing cancer patients you can be sure there will be some investigating. If a group of cells legally becomes a person at conception then its not too far fetched to think there will be more investigation into miscarriages.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    *I'm* a group of cells, as are you. But if I die of cancer or old age, will they automatically investigate the doctor and my heirs for euthanasia? That's the closest parallel I can think of.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    Even then I think his argument might be more nuanced than you are giving him credit for. According to what I've read, he also thinks that as long as Roe vs Wade is the effective law of the land, he is morally obligated to try to get his definition of the beginning life also put into federal law.

    I.e. if Roe vs Wade were completely thrown out, he may also then believe that a federal definition of the beginning of life isn't necessary. I'd have to read more to make a firm argument. And frankly I don't care that much.

  • anon||

    Ron Paul thinks that

    When your argument starts with this, it's completely ignored.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    I'm not sure I'm persuaded by your point, well-argued as it may be.

  • John Thacker||

    In other words, it's reasonable to say, as Mother Jones did, that this means that three-quarters of people are really pro-choice only if you concede that a willingness to ban late-term abortions, or even all abortions of pregnancies not from rape incest, is still "pro-choice."

  • anon||

    What the fuck Nick. Have you not seen an abortion fuckfest in too long or something? WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS TO US!?!?

  • RBS||

    Let's see, there is an Iran thread and an abortion thread. Now all we need is immigration and Trayvon Martin.

  • anon||

    If there's one thing I couldn't give less of a fuck about, it's Trayvon Martin.

  • RBS||

    Yeah me too. I was just thinking of the subjects that start the most arguments.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    There's always dog-killing no-knock raids and medical MJ.

    Yet I rarely hear complaints that these topics are being overdone.

    I think puppycide is a bad thing, but killing babies in the womb isn't so hot, either. And I don't know of any case where the abortionist claims the baby was lunging at him with teeth bared.

    Giving cancer patients access to MJ is an important issue, but protecting people from being killed is an even more important medical issue from my humble perspective.

  • anon||

    Giving cancer patients access to MJ is an important issue,

    You miss the point here.

    Letting people do what they want is important, especially when what they want doesn't affect anyone else.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    And abortion doesn't affect anyone? I hear this a lot, but I'm not exactly convinced.

    "Two go in, one comes out" - sounds like it affects someone.

  • anon||

    Well, lets just agree to separate the parasite from the host and see how the parasite does. If it lives, you're right. If it dies, you're wrong.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    To begin with, abortion generally involves killing the "parasite" directly, not indirectly by inducing labor.

    And even if abortion was limited to induced labor before the baby could survive on its own, that would still be killing - eg, you can't throw a stowaway off your ship into shark-infested waters. Even though the stowaway is a trespasser and parasitic on the shipowner.

    So even when the baby is a "trespasser" (eg, rape), that's not a justification for leaving it to die. And generally, the trespassing situation is a bit vaguer.

  • anon||

    eg, you can't throw a stowaway off your ship into shark-infested waters.

    Uh, care to test that theory? Cause I sure could. This argument boils down to I should let a hobo sleep in my house because it's cold outside and he already snuck in.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    I'm stating what I understand the law to be now. If the unborn are human persons, they should be protected at least as much as the stowaway. At least until they pass your Stowaway Chum Act.

  • Amakudari||

    Well, lets just agree to separate the parasite from the host and see how the parasite does.

    And this is why the ultimate pro-life invention will be an artificial womb.

  • mr simple||

    Then we're going to need a circumcision thread and a ground zero mosque thread.

  • mr simple||

    In response to "subjects that start the most arguments."

  • So Played||

    If there's one thing I couldn't give less of a fuck about, it's Trayvon Martin.

    Interestingly, right now, he feels pretty much the same about you.

  • Zeb||

    Someone should do a survey on why people answer survey questions the way they do.

  • anon||

    Also, a simpler way to state this is "Abortion for thee, but not for me."

    And yes, as a male, I'm totally against having an abortion. That's only because I'm also against being pregnant.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    At no time in our history has the stigma against pregnancy been less, or the demand for adoption so great (in proportion to the mothers willing to consider adoption). And the prolife movement is full to bursting with women - leadership positions, too.

    Yet this tired old meme about men v. women keeps coming up. Not that you're necessarily doing that, I'm just venting.

  • Amakudari||

    I think a lot of what's happened for adoption is that precisely because of the de-stigmatization of unwed motherhood, fewer children are available for adoption. The real change has been in relinquishment rates. I'm trying to find a good source, but what I've seen thus far is that just around 1973, 15-20% of children born to white, unwed mothers were relinquished for adoption, and today it's 1%. The only study I can find estimating abortion's impact puts it around 34-37%.

    Since then, the number of, for example, teen pregnancies that ended in abortion has either held steady of declined a bit, but the rate of teen pregnancy has been cut in half over the last two decades. So that 1% is against a smaller pool.

    Terms are much more favorable now: birthmothers can stay in touch via open adoptions, many pro-life groups will help pay medical costs, they get their choice of adoptive parents, etc. But there's been a cultural change and it's just much less common.

  • John Thacker||

    Perhaps. But not in a male v. female way. The male-female gap in abortion surveys is very low. Much, much lower than, say, the unmarried versus married gap (which certainly can reflect people who might feel that they need one versus people who don't).

  • mr simple||

    Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others.

  • Proprietist||

    "Pro-life" vs. "pro-choice" is a false dichotomy. I'm both. I'm generally pro-life in my personal views and decision making (thinking abortion as convenience is morally wrong once the fetus has started to develop human organs and pain receptors). Yet I'm generally pro-choice in my legal views (except for optional late term and partial-birth abortions, which I'm ok with banning). And I think the rest is a gray area that women need to decide for themselves whether the potential guilt is worth the convenience, and think I don't really have much say unless I'm the dad.

  • Proprietist||

    "Pro-life" vs. "pro-choice" is a false dichotomy. I'm both. I'm generally pro-life in my personal views and decision making (thinking abortion as convenience is morally wrong once the fetus has started to develop human organs and pain receptors). Yet I'm generally pro-choice in my legal views (except for optional late term and partial-birth abortions, which I'm ok with banning). And I think the rest is a gray area that women need to decide for themselves whether the potential guilt is worth the convenience, and think I don't really have much say unless I'm the dad.

  • Maggie||

    I've decided that I'm pro-choice until you find out you're pregnant. One of my very liberal feminist friends got really mad at me when I told her that.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement