Gallup has released its annual poll of Americans’ views on abortion rights, and the headline number made quite a stir: Half of respondents called themselves “pro-life,” just shy of the record 51 percent from May 2009, while a “record-low 41 percent” identified themselves as “pro-choice.” When Gallup first asked people to choose between those two labels in 1995, “pro-choice” was at its high-water mark of 56 percent and “pro-life” was at 33 percent. This isn’t the only new poll raising eyebrows, and the others don’t exactly paint the U.S. as increasingly socially conservative: In a Washington Post/ABC News poll, a record-high 53 percent of Americans say same-sex marriage should be legal, versus a record-low 39 percent who want it illegal; Gallup has also found that 89 percent of people think birth control is “morally acceptable” (including 82 percent of Catholics); and Rasmussen even found a new high of 56 percent of likely voters supporting legalizing and regulating the sale of marijuana.
So, what’s going on with America and abortion?
1. Support for abortion rights is dropping
Why not take the poll at face value? asks Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. ”We are seeing a societal shift in attitudes on abortion.” More and more Americans, especially independents and Democrats, are coming to see abortion as “barbaric.” That’s largely due to “sonograms, science, and real-life experience with abortion,” says W. James Antle III at The American Spectator, all of which make it “harder to reconcile choice with the reality of the act being chosen.” Yup, “we pro-lifers are clearly winning the battle,” says Donald McClarey at The American Catholic. With the media, Hollywood, and academia “stacked against us,” that’s a miracle, “but we are a cause that believes in miracles.”
2. This poll is probably just a fluke
Here’s what this poll means: “Probably nothing at all,” says Ed Kilgore at Washington Monthly. The last time Gallup’s abortion findings got so much attention was in 2009, when “pro-life” hit 51 percent and “pro-choice” 42 percent. Other than that “strange finding in 2009,” and this “inexplicable” blip, the polling has been unusually stable for the past decade and a half, closer to the 2011 results: 49 percent “pro-choice,” 45 percent “pro-life.” That means this poll, like the 2009 numbers, “is likely an outlier.”
3. Conservatives are winning the branding war
The buzzwords matter, says Melissa McEwan at Shakesville. With their amazing knack for “demonizing language,” conservative strategists have “turned ‘pro-choice’ toxic in much the same way they did ‘liberal.’” Abortion-rights supporters have a lot of work to do. Actually, this shift is mostly about semantics, says Steve Benen at The Maddow Blog. When you look past the headline numbers, our views on the legality of abortion are pretty much unchanged: 25 percent say it should always be legal, 20 percent say it should never be legal, and 52 percent say it should be legal sometimes. Those “fundamental views matter more than vague buzzwords.”
4. Americans don’t think abortion rights are imperiled
In May 2009, the “pro-life” high point, “pro-choice Barack Obama” had just taken office, says Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog; in May 2011, when “pro-choice” was back on top, “the overwhelmingly anti-abortion GOP class of 2010” had started rolling back reproductive rights at the state level. The majority of Americans are somewhere in the middle on abortion, and their self-labeling shifts with the political tides. Lesson: People support abortion rights when those rights are threatened. So “what’s going on now?” According to polls, “Americans think Obama will be president for four more years, therefore abortion rights aren’t threatened.”
5. It’s a generational thing
There has been a slight shift “toward a more pro-life position in the last decade or so,” including in “the younger generation,” says Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast. People are becoming more attuned to the moral questions involved in abortion, while staying firm on the legal issues. For example, “I don’t want to criminalize abortion in the first trimester, but if I had to describe myself, I’d probably say ‘pro-life.’” Yes, there’s “an increasingly expansive view of what pro-life means,” especially among younger members of the pro-abortion-rights side, says Sarah Kliff at The Washington Post. “Pro-choice” dates back to the 1970s, and “a label developed 40 years ago might not speak to abortion-rights supporters in a way it did for previous generations.”