Has the Public Become More Opposed to Abortion?

by John Sides on May 16, 2009 · 19 comments

in Public opinion

These Gallup and Pew data are receiving a lot of attention. Both polls show a shift in opinion. In the Gallup data, the percentage of people who call themselves “pro-life” has increased and, for the first time in their polling, outnumbers the percentage who call themselves “pro-choice.” There is a similar shift in the percentages who favor abortion “under any circumstances” (now at 23%) and who believe it should be “illegal in all cases” (22%). In the Pew data, the proportion who believe that abortion should be legal in “all” or “most” cases has dropped (from 54% in August to 46%), and the proportion who say it should be illegal in all or most cases has increased (from 41% to 46%44%).

How should we understand these results? I’ll note three good points that others have made, and then analyze some data that no one has yet examined.

  • The first point: a wider array of data do not appear to show notable trends. See Nate Silver’s post. He writes, “In fact, the remarkable thing about abortion is precisely how steady public opinion has been on it for many, many years.” Yes. See below.
  • The second point: the movement appears to be among Republicans. See these graphs from Gallup (Rep, Dem). Why Republicans? Ed Kilgore offers a hypothesis: Republican leaders have stepped up their criticisms of Obama’s policies on abortion, and so Republicans in the public have shifted accordingly. That’s a familiar finding in political science scholarship. Ultimately, the political implications of aggregate shifts in public opinion depend on who is doing the shifting. The Gallup headline (“More Americans “Pro-Life” Than “Pro-Choice” for First Time”) could as easily have been (“More Republicans Declare They Are “Pro-Life”).
  • The third point: these Gallup and Pew questions are hopelessly mushy. Marc Ambinder states it nicely: “The abortion debate in America is about policy, not about those words–they do not encapsulate, for instance, whether a majority want abortion to be legal for pregnant women whose lives is threatened by the pregnancy in the third trimester. Some people who call themselves ‘pro-life’ might say abortion should be legal in that case.”

Here are some data that are far less mushy and speak directly to another of Kilgore’s points: “the simple fact that Americans seem to care quite a bit why a woman seeks an abortion.”

The first set of data come from the National Election Studies. They have asked this question since 1980:

There has been some discussion about abortion during recent years. Please tell me which one of these opinions best agrees with your view:
1. By law, abortion should never be permitted.
2. The law should permit abortion only in case of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger.
3. The law should permit abortion for reasons other than rape, incest, or danger to the woman’s life, but only after the need for the abortion has been established.
4. By law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice.

Here are the percentages of people who supported each opinion, including the 2008 data, which were collected in November and December, after the election.

nesabortion.png

Here are some key findings:

  • The plurality of Americans (41%) believe abortion is a matter of personal choice. This is much larger than the percentage who believe abortion should never be permitted (15%). By that measure, pro-choice Americans outnumber pro-life Americans—despite how people use those labels in the Gallup item. This is why the Gallup item is pretty useless.
  • There has been no notable change over time, including in 2008. In fact, if anything, there is a slight uptick of about 4 points in the percentage who favor abortion as a matter of personal choice. But I wouldn’t put much stock in that. Opinions are simply pretty stable, as Nate Silver noted.
  • The “mushy middle” that Kilgore refers to is evident as well: 45% of people favor legal abortion only under some circumstances: when the pregnancy is the result of rape and/or incest, when it poses a danger to the mother’s life, and/or “when the need has been established.”

The second set of data specify even more clearly the circumstances under which people favor or oppose the right to a legal abortion. These data come from the General Social Survey. The GSS asks confronts respondents with a variety of circumstances and asks whether they support or oppose abortion under each circumstance:

Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion:
– If there is a strong chance of serious defect in the baby?
– If she is married and does not want any more children?
– If the woman’s own health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy?
– If the family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children?
– If she became pregnant as a result of rape?
– If she is not married and does not want to marry the man?
– If the woman wants it for any reason?

Here are the percentages from 1977-2008.

gssabortion.png

Some key findings:

  • The conditional nature of opinion is evident. Large majorities support the right to an abortion when it is the result of rape, when it endangers the woman’s health (not just life), and when there is a strong chance of a serious defect in the baby. Pluralities, but not majorities, support abortion under the other circumstances.
  • In 2008, the percentage who said they favored abortion in any circumstance was 42%—nearly identical to the proportion who have a similarly unequivocal answer in the NES data. However, if you actually tabulate the percentage of people who supported the right to an abortion under all of these circumstances, it is 32%. At least some people who say they favor abortion under any circumstance really do not. But even this fraction is much larger than the percentage who did not favor abortion under any circumstance: 10%.
  • There has been very little change in opinion in the last 10 years.

Simply put, the Pew and Gallup findings obscure far more than they reveal. They purport to show shifts in opinion that are not evident in other data. There is no consistent evidence for a “conservative turn,” as Pew puts it.

Moreover, both Pew and Gallup employ vague questions that do not easily map onto actual policy debates. Once more precise data are employed, it becomes clear that opinion strongly depends on the circumstances under which the abortion would occur. While people who are favor a legal abortion under any of the circumstances mentioned outnumber those who unequivocally oppose abortion by a factor of abut 3, most people are in the middle. In the GSS data, 58% favor a legal abortion under some circumstances, but not others.

UPDATE: Commenter Lawrence notes some new questions from the 2008 NES. I looked at those as well. Here is a quick summary of the percentage of people who favor (or lean toward favoring) abortion under each of the following conditions:

(Note: Sampling weights are employed and those who do not respond are included in these calculations.)

“Staying pregnant would hurt the woman’s health but is very unlikely to cause her to die”: 47%
“Staying pregnant could cause the woman to die”: 79%
“The pregnancy was caused by sex the woman chose to have with a blood relative”: 44%
“The pregnancy was caused by the woman being raped”: 73%
“The fetus will be born with a serious birth defect”: 57%
“Having the child would be extremely difficult for the woman financially”: 33%
“The child will not be the sex the woman wants it to be”: 10%

By my calculations, 12% of respondents oppose abortion under all of these circumstances, and 8% support it under all of these circumstances. If we eliminate the circumstance of sex selection, 22% support abortion under all of those circumstances.

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