It’s rather ironic that as the most pro-choice government in U.S. history settles into its seats, a national poll finds that most Americans are pro-life.
Some observers have tried to pooh-pooh this result, but it doesn’t surprise me for two reasons explained below.
There’s no doubt that Americans intentionally elected many pro-choice politicians in 2006 and 2008. So it seems logical that Gallup pollsters would find strong support for abortion outside the voting booth, too.
Instead, for the first time in the 14 years since Gallup started asking “With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?” 51 percent of the 1,015 adults said they were pro-life and 42 percent said they were pro-choice. This is a full reversal from 2006, when 51 percent were pro-choice and 41 percent were pro-life.
Is this shift real?
A blogger for the liberal Media Matters for America said the Gallup labels were “loaded” and its results “fishy.”
Time magazine writer Nancy Gibbs said there are “all kinds of ways to misunderstand” the Gallup poll results. She suggested that because pro-choice leaders have the momentum, perhaps Americans are simply applying some brakes.
My response? In 2007, I spent several days poring over dozens of public-opinion surveys, trying to divine America’s views on abortion 34 years after Roe v. Wade.
My conclusion, which I included in a three-part series on the future of the traditional-values movement, was that, in general, 20 percent of Americans supported abortion under “any” circumstances and 20 percent supported it under “no” circumstances. The majority supported abortion under limited circumstances - but didn’t agree on what those circumstances might be.
Gallup’s new poll, taken in May, shows that this stance - 53 percent support abortion with limits, with the smaller percentages holding extreme views - still holds.
What’s new is that when asked flat-out, most Americans now say they are pro-life.
I find this believable for two reasons.
First, my 2007 research showed that young Americans are skewing pro-life. A 2003 Gallup poll, for instance, compared the abortion views of 517 teens, aged 13 to 17, with those of more than 1,000 adults. When asked whether abortion should be allowed under “any” circumstance, adults were more likely to say yes than teens (26 percent to 21 percent). More stunningly, when asked whether abortion should be allowed under “no” circumstances - i.e., be outlawed - 33 percent of teens said yes, compared with only 17 percent of adults.
Another poll, released in January 2006 by Hamilton College and Zogby International, asked 1,000 high-school seniors about the morality of abortion. Two-thirds said it was immoral, with 23 percent saying it was “always” morally wrong and 44 percent saying it was “usually” morally wrong.
My experience with youth, both personally and professionally, is that they often recoil at abortion. So I find a pro-life trend in youth to be quite plausible.
Second, I think some aging baby boomers are changing their views. People generally become more conservative and self-reflective with age. Legacies matter. Hindsight is 20/20. Regrets appear.
My suspicion is that in more than a few cases, baby boomers who were willing to have abortions are not at ease with the idea of losing their grandchildren, too. It may be that in the autumn of life, being “pro-life” has a whole new meaning.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org