Last month the Virginia Attorney-General, Ken Cuccinelli II, issued an
official opinion
which possibly could close many of the state’s abortion
clinics. He declared that the Board of Health can require that abortion doctors
hold hospital privileges, that clinic counsellors be professionally trained and
that buildings be refurbished. Abortion-rights advocates are worried. They say
that if the Board of Health were to act on Cucinelli’s non-binding opinion, 17
of Virginia’s 21 abortion clinics could close.

For anyone opposed to abortion in the US, this is good news. But this is
just one sign of a slow shift in public opinion. In fact, recent polls show
that a majority of Americans backs the pro-life cause.

In May 2009, for the first time in 15 years since it was first
conducted, a Gallup poll reported that more Americans were opposed to abortion
than supported it. The trend has held. In four polls running in the last 15
months (May 2009, July 2009, May 2010, July 2010) more Americans call
themselves pro-life than pro-abortion (or “pro-choice”). The
latest poll (July 17-19, 2010
interviewing 1,006 people aged over 18) shows
47 percent pro-life against 46 percent pro-choice. Pro-choice lobbyists were dismayed, and declared that they had to educate young people about their cause. “Numbers can be shocking,” said Kierra Johnson, executive director of Choice USA, “especially numbers that show a sizable drop
in young people’s support for legal abortion under any circumstance.”

How much do incumbent politicians affect popular opinion on these
matters? More than we realise, the polls may suggest.

Graphs presented with the
poll in May 3-6, 2010
show that from 2003 until 2010, on a two-year
average, those who call themselves pro-life among Republican and independent
voters have increased from 57 percent to 68 percent. In the same period,
Democrats’ pro-life supporters decreased from 37 percent to 31 percent. It is
hard to measure the influence of Bush’s pro-life stance. If it was the cause of
the change, it also suggests pro-choice voters are more volatile and less sure
of themselves than appears. Should this be a surprise? They are hardly standing
on firm ground.

If Bush had this much impact, another President against it could shift
the tide strongly. Moreover, it seems, while President Barack Obama has dragged
his own supporters slightly further down the pro-choice line, his clear and
persistent support for abortion may have 
awakened Republican opposition, making more of them pro-life. Here is
what Gallup has to say:

“The source of the latest shift in abortion views — between 2008 and
2009 — is clear. The percentage of Republicans (including independents who
lean Republican) who call themselves “pro-life” has risen by nearly
10 points over the past year, from 60% to 68% — perhaps a reaction to the
“pro-choice” presidency of Barack Obama — while there has been
essentially no change in the views of Democrats and Democratic leaners.”

The presidential factor can work in reverse, as well. It was suggested
by Gallup that a huge shift in May 2009 may have been prompted by Obama’s
commencement address to the University of Notre Dame. That put his views on
centre stage.

The popular vote has given a steady majority to pro-life supporters in
the last year or more. In May 2009, 51 percent identified themselves as
pro-life, compared to 42 percent pro-choice. In July 2009, 46 percent to 45
percent were pro-life, in May 2010 47 percent to 45 percent, and the gap has
closed again in July 2010 47 percent to 46 percent in favour of the pro-life

The demographic breakdown of the votes is interesting. While the
pro-life shift is great amongst those aged 50 and over, the change is also
significant amongst youth between 18 and 29 with an increase of 7 percent (40
percent to 47 percent) since 2003. Whereas men tend to be more pro-life than
women, in 2009-10, for the first time, more women (48 percent) were pro-life than
pro-choice (45 percent).

Are these polls cause for celebration?

In one sense, no. The road ahead is steep and enormous work remains to
be done. “Pro-life” may be the new normal at the moment, but, oddly, the acceptability
of abortion is rising. The vast majority, 50 percent of Americans, still
believe abortion is wrong, compared to 38 percent calling it acceptable. Yet this
has declined from 56 percent since 2009.

Such polls prove that pro-life supporters should not resign themselves
to the status quo – because the status quo is volatile. Furthermore, the latest
poll shows that the number who think that abortion should be legal in some
circumstances, has not declined since 1988. It has  actually increased: 53 percent believed then that some
abortions should be legal compared to 57 percent today.

There is no room for complacency, but the combination of incremental
legislative change and glacial movement in public opinion gives hope that
abortion is on the way out in the US.

Andrew Galbraith is a graduate
student currently studying at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium.