Polling on Abortion and the “Why” Issue

I’d add a footnote to the robust discussion Rich Yeselson touched off yesterday in response to Ross Douthat’s column citing public opinion on abortion as a reason to welcome the Komen Foundation’s effort to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.

Anyone who has ever looked at the issue seriously and objectively typically reaches two conclusions on public opinion about abortion: it hasn’t really changed a whole lot since Roe v. Wade, yet you can get different numbers by asking questions about abortion in different ways. Large pluralities of Americans appear to favor making some abortions legal and others illegal, and connecting those views to a “pro-choice” or “pro-life” label in a particular survey can produce an illusory shift in public opinion. Contra Douthat’s claim that media elites can’t talk about abortion without revealing their pro-choice biases, there’s actually been a lot of silly hype over the last few years about a shift to a “pro-life majority” based on polls that include vague loaded language.

But a third factor in abortion opinion is a bit less evident in the topline numbers: Americans who do not neatly fit into hard-core pro-choice or pro-life categories seem to care a great deal about why abortions occur, and this considerably adds to the number who refuse to say they support legalized abortion in all or even most cases. Such specious but often-discussed reasons for abortion as sex-selection, “convenience,” or willful negligence in practicing birth control do not go over very well. But when more plausible grounds for an abortion are cited, the pro-choice numbers go up very rapidly. Thus, at the height of the “partial-birth abortion” furor in the early part of the last decade, even as stable majorities supported a ban, 60% of respondents (in the one poll that bothered to ask) favored a “health” exception–an exception universally denounced by anti-choicers as making a ban completely meaningless.

Another confusing factor in public opinion on abortion involves the relative intensity of strongly pro-choice and strongly anti-choice voters, which presumably makes the impact of the latter on the political system (and certainly on the Republican Party) larger. If you think about it for half a minute, it should be obvious that pro-choice Americans defending the status quo will naturally be less agitated than people who think (to one degree or another) the country is tolerating mass homicides. But it should be equally obvious that once anti-choicers begin to succeed in restricting abortion rights (as is occurring in many states right now), and when the Supreme Court looks near to overturning or drastically restricting the scope of Roe (as might well become apparent if the next president is Republican and a pro-Roe Justice retires, or even earlier, given Justice Kennedy’s unpredictable views), the intensity scales will likely move closer to balance. More importantly, if the fundamental right to choose becomes the central issue, instead of all the conditions craftily developed by anti-choicers to achieve a strategic advantage, the underlying majority–not a huge one, but a real one–favoring legalized abortion will also re-emerge with greater clarity.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.