More Murky, If Encouraging, Polling on Abortion

Some of you may remember a spasm of media attention paid in 2009 to a couple of polls, including one from Gallup, showing a plurality or even a majority of Americans identifying as “pro-life” on abortion. I did an explainer for FiveThirtyEight at the time noting the vagueness of these categories of self-identification, and also how poor polls are generally in capturing the nuances of the abortion debate.

Well, now the shoe’s on the other foot, per this release from Gallup:

Half of Americans consider themselves “pro-choice” on abortion, surpassing the 44% who identify as “pro-life.” This is the first time since 2008 that the pro-choice position has had a statistically significant lead in Americans’ abortion views.

Much as I’d like to believe there’s been a big shift in opinion towards the “pro-choice” position, I think we need to treat this data with the same skepticism as the 2009 findings.

If you look at Gallup’s other metric for abortion opinion–offering respondents the choice of four positions ranging from “legal under any circumstances,” to “legal in most circumstances,” to “legal in only a few circumstances,” to “Illegal in all circumstances,” there is one interesting if not overwhelming trend since 2009: the “legal under any circumstances” position has risen from 22% to 29%, while the “illegal in all circumstances” position has declined from 23% to 19%. The “murky middle” positions, as usual, command close to a majority.

As I argued back in 2009, some shifts in self-identification on abortion are probably attributable to perceptions of threats to the status quo. In 2009 anti-choicers were on the defensive after Obama’s big victory and considerable talk about his pro-choice Supreme Court nominees. Now most of the public discussion of abortion policy involves efforts at both the federal and state levels to restrict or even ban abortions, or reduce their general availability. This offers some hope that pro-choicers can make abortion policy an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, though we’ll have to get through the misleading spin that such efforts failed dismally in the 2014 midterms.

One finding from the new Gallup poll may surprise people who haven’t followed public opinion research very carefully:

The recent increase in the pro-choice side has occurred almost equally among men and women. However, for men, this has not compensated for the larger drop in their identification as pro-choice in 2012. As a result, a slight gender gap has emerged over the last three years, with women more likely than men to be pro-choice. This contrasts with 2001 through 2011, when there was virtually no gender gap.

There’s always been a tendency among pro-choice advocates to describe anti-choicers as men seeking to impose their views upon women, which is true to the extent that most lawmakers trying to ban or restrict reproductive rights are indeed men. And you can even say that anyone supporting abortion restrictions is in some respects trying to give men power over decisions that should be made by individual women. But that doesn’t mean women have been any more likely to identify as pro-choice than men, at least at many junctures. That there is now a gender gap on the subject may nicely mesh with a general Democratic effort in 2016 to add higher percentages among women from all sorts of backgrounds to the “Obama Coalition.”

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.