- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A record low 41 percent of Americans identify themselves as “pro-choice” on abortion, according to a poll released Wednesday, while the number of Americans who say they are “pro-life” bounced back into the majority.

The results from the Gallup Poll survey confirm a sharp turnaround in personal attitudes about abortion in the 17 years since the polling firm first asked the question. In 1995, the first year of the poll, 56 percent of respondents described themselves as pro-choice on abortion, compared with 33 percent who were pro-life.

The results could have ramifications on the campaign trail this fall, with President Obama, who is pro-choice, facing GOP challenger Mitt Romney, who is pro-life and supports the rights of states to set their own policies on abortion.

Pollsters and social scientists say they cannot say for sure why views have shifted, nor is it clear that Americans will maintain these positions.

But pro-life advocates quickly cheered the news that 50 percent of Americans describe themselves as pro-life, while pro-choice supporters noted that the same Gallup Poll survey found little or no movement on key measures about whether abortion is acceptable or should be made illegal.

“Americans are increasingly identifying with the position of protecting human life,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, adding that pro-life identification has been dubbed the “new normal.”

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said labels like “pro-choice” and “pro-life” fail to capture “the complexity of how most people actually think and feel about abortion in this country.”

“Instead of putting people in one category or another, we should respect the real-life decisions women and their families face every day,” Ms. Richards said.

Despite the falling levels of support for the pro-choice label, the poll also sends a conflicting signal on legal efforts to curb or ban access to abortion services. The Gallup survey found that while 51 percent of Americans consider abortion “morally wrong,” 52 percent also believe that abortion should be legal “under certain circumstances,” and another 25 percent said abortion should be legal “under any circumstances.”

Just 20 percent say abortion should be illegal “in all circumstances,” and the numbers for all three categories have changed only marginally since the survey began.

The data came from 1,024 adults who were contacted in May for Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs poll.

Fifty percent of Americans identified themselves as “pro-life,” 5 percentage points higher than in 2011 and just shy of the 51 percent - the highest ever recorded in the survey — in May 2009.

The more dramatic change was the decline in Americans identifying themselves as “pro-choice.” The number tumbled 8 percentage points in one year - from 49 percent in 2011 to 41 percent — and set a new low point for this question, which Gallup has been asking since 1995.

The reason Gallup asks people whether they are pro-choice or pro-life is because that was how everyone wanted to characterize the results of other abortion questions the pollster asks, said Lydia Saad, a Gallup editor and author of the new report.

“So instead of us trying to say which categories [are what], let’s just ask Americans,” she said. “And it turns out they can answer it readily. … People understand those terms and they have no trouble using them to define themselves.”

Ms. Saad said the latest numbers don’t show a clear trend toward pro-life identification. “Since 2009, pro-choice has not hit 50 percent [support] and pro-life has not gone below 44 percent. And that’s completely different than the pattern prior to that,” she said.

However, it “remains to be seen whether the pro-life spike found this month proves temporary, as it did in 2009, or is sustained for some period.”

Asked about what might be influencing people to change their views, Ms. Saad said, “we don’t know why,” but that it’s possible certain events could have an effect, at least temporarily.

For instance, in the late 1990s, there was a sharp drop in pro-choice identification and rise in pro-life identification.

Those changes “corresponded to the debate over partial-birth abortion,” she said. Based on some polls, “we speculated that suddenly the definition of what it meant to be pro-choice or pro-life hinged on this issue — partial-birth abortion — which people were against. And that changed the framework for what those labels mean.”

Looking at today’s issues, Ms. Saad said, polling on the Obama administration’s battle with religious leaders over a health insurance mandate to cover all contraception products showed that the issue is “not a slam-dunk for either side.”

“But who knows what buttons are being pushed in people’s minds?” she said.

John Sides, a professor of political science at George Washington University, cautions against reading too much into the headline pro-life versus pro-choice totals, saying the labels can obscure as much as reveal popular attitudes about public policy and the often complex, personal choices about abortion.

“This ‘pro-life’ versus ‘pro-choice’ question obscures the true nature of American attitudes toward abortion. Support for the right to abortion depends strongly on the circumstances of the pregnancy,” Mr. Sides wrote Wednesday on the political science blog the Monkey Cage.

Other numbers from Wednesday’s Gallup poll:

• Fifty-one percent of Americans say abortion is “morally wrong,” while 38 percent say it is “morally acceptable.” These are both in line with previous polls.

• Democrats remain overwhelmingly pro-choice, with 58 percent identifying as supporters of abortion rights. However, the figure reflects a 10-point decline since 2011, when 68 percent of Democrats said they were pro-choice.

• Republicans registered a near-record high of 72 percent identification as pro-life, and a record low of 22 percent as pro-choice.

• Political independents typically have identified themselves as pro-choice, including 51 percent who chose this view in 2011. However, the new poll showed a reversal in positions, with 41 percent of independents saying they are pro-choice compared with 47 percent saying they are pro-life. This means that for only the second time, “pro-lifers now outnumber pro-choicers among this important swing group,” Gallup said.

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