A Gallup Poll conducted earlier this month showed for the first time that a majority of American adults (51 per cent) now call themselves “pro-life” on the abortion issue, compared to 42 per cent calling themselves “pro-choice.” Gallup’s long history of polling has never before shown a “pro-life” advantage, and the current result is a near-perfect mirror image of results from one year ago. In May 2008, 50 per cent called themselves “pro-choice,” with just 44 per cent taking the “pro-life” label. For the pro-life side, this represents a net movement of 15 percentage points (from -6 to +9).
A poll from Fox News/Opinion Dynamics, conducted just days later, suggests that Gallup’s result, and trend, are real. In that survey, a 49 per cent plurality takes the pro-life label, while 43 per cent call themselves pro-choice. This is again a nearly perfect mirror image of the 49 per cent to 41per cent pro-choice advantage reported in the same poll last year, and it represents a net movement of 14 percentage points in the pro-life direction (from -8 to +6). Later in the same month, a survey from The Polling Company became the third to show a pro-life plurality (this time of 47per cent to 45 per cent).
The historical trend is even more dramatic when viewed in a wider context. In 1995, even after the previous year’s historic Republican sweep, the Gallup Poll showed a solid majority (56 per cent) saying it was pro-choice, compared to only 33per cent who would admit to being pro-life.
A colleague and I noted this national trend in an extensive longitudinal analysis of Missouri voters’ abortion attitudes. In that piece, we found a striking connection between changes in the tone of the national abortion debate and voters’ willingness to describe themselves as “pro-life”.
In the early-to-mid 1990s, the news was dominated by stories about shootings of abortionists, abortion clinic bombings, and protestors chaining themselves to clinic doors. Unsurprisingly, relatively few voters wanted to associate themselves with the “pro-life” label. A few years later, the climate surrounding abortion had changed considerably: the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, signed in 1994, had virtually eliminated clinic attacks and blockades. Then, a Republican-dominated Congress passed repeated bans on partial birth abortion (twice vetoed by President Clinton, but eventually signed into law by President Bush in 2003).
With the focus no longer on confrontational (and sometimes violent) protests, but rather on the grisly procedure carried out on full-term babies, voters seemed to change their minds about who the extremists were on the abortion issue. In Missouri, the pro-life label surged ahead (and has remained ahead) of the pro-choice label; nationally, by the late 1990s, Gallup showed the pro-choice label maintaining an advantage, but much narrower than it had enjoyed previously. The current national results could be viewed as a continuation of this long-term trend.
A question remains, however, regarding the degree to which underlying attitudes about the legality of abortion have changed. The somewhat surprising answer: very little. When given six different options about the legal status of abortion, in both 1998 (the earliest year in which the question was asked) and 2009, an over-all majority of Americans chose one of the three pro-life options: abortion should be prohibited in all circumstances (9 per cent in 1998 / 10 per cent in 2009), legal only to save the life of the mother (15 per cent / 16 per cent), or also for rape and incest (30 per cent / 29 per cent).
By contrast, just over four in ten held one of the three pro-choice positions: legal for any reason, but not beyond the first three months of pregnancy (30 per cent in 1998 / 26 per cent in 2009), legal, but not beyond the first six months (6 per cent / 8 per cent), or legal for any time and at any stage of pregnancy (6 per cent / 7per cent).
In total, a pro-life position was taken by 54 per cent in 1998 and 55per cent in 2009; a pro-choice position was held by 42 per cent in 1998 and 41 per cent in 2009. (The characterization of these positions as “pro-life” or “pro-choice” is my own; they were not identified as such to poll respondents.)
What appears to be happening is that, with the changing climate surrounding the abortion issue, Americans have grown increasingly comfortable in using the “pro-life” label to describe the arguably pro-life positions they have held for the last 10+ years. In other words, comfort with the label is finally catching up to comfort with the position.
This is not to say that America is necessarily a “pro-life” country, or that its electorate necessarily votes in accord with its position on the issue. The American pro-life majority, to the extent one exists, remains narrow; the electorate could best be described as “deeply divided” on the abortion issue, just as it was eleven years ago, in both substance and self-identification.
However, it should be emphasized that labels do matter in politics. The labels “Republican” and “Democrat” can hold meaning for the electorate, and change in their relative appeal over time, even as net support for each party’s policy platform may remain constant. The labels themselves serve as an information shortcut for voters as to who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are.
The “pro-life” and “pro-choice” labels can serve a similar function. Given how the public’s self-identification on abortion has changed, the pro-life label is no longer a disadvantage for candidates seeking public office. In fact, it now carries a net positive effect nationally.
Although voters have not become more supportive of specific abortion restrictions, we can say with confidence is that there has been a dramatic change in the climate surrounding the abortion issue—and that pro-life candidates should feel more confident in identifying themselves as such.
Christopher Blunt operates Overbrook Research, a public opinion consulting practice, in Michigan.