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: