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.

{ 17 comments }

Lawrence May 16, 2009 at 10:19 pm

The GSS is not the best survey for comparing those who would support legal abortion for any reason to those who would oppose legal abortion for any reason. Prolife absolutists are those who would not permit abortion under even the most critical of conditions (to protect female life) and prochoice absolutists are those who would support abortion under even the most trivial of circumstances (like a fetus who would be born under the wrong astrological sign). The GSS simply does not have a trivial scenario.

The 2008 ANES asked about legal abortion when the fetus is not the gender desired by the pregnant woman, and only seven percent favored legal abortion under that condition (with 87 percent opposed, and six percent on the fence). Compare that with the scenario in which there is a fatal health risk to the pregnant woman: 73 percent favored legal abortion, 15 percent opposed, and 12 percent were on the fence. Both questions had more than 1000 observations. If the seven 2008 ANES scenarios are combined, somewhere like seven percent are prochoice absolutists (i.e., support legal abortion in all seven conditions) and seven percent are prolife absolutists (i.e., oppose legal abortion in all seven conditions). So the ratio is more like 1:1 than 3:1.

John Sides May 16, 2009 at 10:36 pm

Lawrence: Thanks very much for your additional analysis. I obviously qualified my conclusion about that ratio (e.g., “under any of the circumstances mentioned”) but this suggests the need for an even stronger qualification. Much appreciated.

Eric May 17, 2009 at 12:00 am

Of course, none of this is likely to be reported in any major news source.

Americaneocon May 17, 2009 at 7:03 pm

“Simply put, the Pew and Gallup findings obscure far more than they reveal.”

With respect, I don’t think that’s true. I wrote about this myself, and the question wording is clear, and wording has been consistent over time. Pro-aborts don’t like asking people straight up if they are pro-life, because the number has been growing over time. And Gallup’s shown that those supporting Roe is 53 percent and has not changed. So, while the public might like stare decisis in practice, the increasingly Democratic abortion on demand position is grisly and is losing support among moderates.

John Sides May 17, 2009 at 10:24 pm

Eric: I’m working on that.

Americanneocon: I don’t think either label tells us much. Most people who say they are “pro-choice” support some limits on abortion. Most people who are “pro-life” favor abortion in some circumstances. I think polling organizations can do better.

Scott Yates May 17, 2009 at 11:13 pm

Great work.

One other question, maybe you can point me to the answer:

Is there any good data about opinions based on the age of the person seeking the abortion? Is there a breakdown with questions like: If the girl is under 18, should she be able to get an abortion without parental consent?

Thanks.

Shag from Brookline May 18, 2009 at 6:16 am

If someone is asked “Are you pro-life?” is some sort of a definition provided? I am pro-life as it relates to those born. So perhaps the phrase “pro-life” should be defined for purposes of the question regarding when “life” begins. As a male, I would not impose upon a female the obligation to carry a pregnancy to birth; that should be her choice. But once the child is born, most of us, perhaps all of us, support the life of that child.

Judge Paul May 18, 2009 at 11:02 am

The polls are meaningless and incompetent.
The “make illegal” side of the question is not explored. The penalty for killing a baby would be death in many states. Those that conspire with others or who are accessory to such a crime also face serious punishment. Every abortion would be a potential murder case. You will have to prove you had a right to kill the baby, and were therefore exempt from the murder laws. With millions of abortions, many millions of people will have need for lawyers. Perhaps you encouraged, concealed, or assisted someone to do this, think decades in prison. But, if abortion is baby killing then you and your friends actually deserve this. No doubt all would agree were the baby naturally born.
The polls ignore the policy questions inherent in a new policy of illegality. None of the ramifications of a reversal of Roe v. Wade (the only obvious way to implement the new policy), and a new state by state legal patchwork, are queried. Views will change when a national prohibition vs. a state by state approach is considered. Have they considered the political effect that this new issue will have on local, state, and national politics? The amount of punishment is also a key question.
The results themselves seem to prove that the difference between a policy choice and personal opinion is blurred. It is well known that literally nobody “favors” abortion. The push polling effect also seems clear. It presumes that abortion is an unlawful killing of human life, and queries only potential exemptions. It makes no queries as to why abortion is wrong, or why it should be illegal, or murder. Is stem cell research also murder? Is the timing of the abortion relevant? (It was in Roe v. Wade). Who gets to decide on the claim of exemption? The doctor, the patient, the state, some abortion court? Should it be legal to travel to another state or country for an abortion? Is the morning after pill an abortion?
Considering that a potential abortion represents the most common case of imminent potential murder, that could be prevented, would 1 waterboarding be allowed to investigate and stop it? 2?

Sydnew May 18, 2009 at 11:17 am

The question pollsters ought to be asking is about timing. I’d be willing to guess that most mainstream Americans might have very different answers if it was six weeks into the pregnancy or six months. That’s the nuance that gets lost with the simple questions.

John Sides May 18, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Scott Yates: According to a 2005 Pew poll, 73% favor “requiring that women under the age of 18 get the consent of at least one parent before they are allowed to have an abortion.” 22% oppose.

Sydnew: According to a Feb. 2005 Harris poll, 60% say that “abortion should be legal” in the “first three months of pregnancy” (38% illegal). The balance shifts toward opposition to abortion in the second trimester (26% legal, 72% illegal) and third trimester (12%, 86%).

bakho May 18, 2009 at 12:29 pm

What people think does not really matter for abortion rates. The largest determinant of the abortion rate for any country is the availability and use of contraceptives. Many countries where abortion is illegal have higher abortion rates than countries where abortion is legal.

The lowest abortion rates are in Western European countries that have the highest rates of contraceptive use. The US has much higher abortion rates because access/use of contraceptives is far less. This is because many anti-abortion supporters in the US are also anti-contraception (especially for sexually active teens (abstinence only)) so teens become sexually active without developing good contraceptive practices that follow them into adulthood.

We could eliminate well over half of the abortions in the US if we had better contraception programs.

Sebastian May 18, 2009 at 12:33 pm

“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”

Heh. So if you choose the very broadest “pro-choice” position and the very narrowest “pro-life” position, guess which one wins.

How about this, with the exact same data. A very clear majority of Americans (60%) believe that abortions should be restricted in a wide variety of situations.

Or this: the ONLY situations where access to abortion has clear majority support in the United States is when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or when the mother could die.

Also note that contra the maximalist abortion position of NARAL, support for abortion drops dramatically as early as the second trimester (72% believe it should be illegal).

Damien R. S. May 18, 2009 at 2:19 pm

So if you choose the very broadest “pro-choice” position and the very narrowest “pro-life” position,

No. “broadest pro-choice” would be to aggregate “personal choice” “rape and incest” and “established need”, as all supporting abortion in some circumstances. The comparison actually done was to compare the most extreme pro-choice and the most extreme pro-life positions within that poll.

A very clear majority of Americans (60%) believe that abortions should be restricted in a wide variety of situations.

The policy problem is if they disagree as to the situations. If Alice thinks abortion should be legal in the case of health and birth defects, and Jane thinks abortion should be legal in the case of health and rape, should they agree to allow abortion only in the case of health, or in the joint cases of (health, birth defects and rape)? Union or intersection of sets?

With union of permissibility, 40% who’d allow abortion in one case and 40% who’d allow it in another can become a de facto pro-choice majority, if they’d rather allow squeamish cases than give it up when they think it’s justified.

“Should be illegal in the second trimester” suffers from vague questions again. Does that hold if there’s health risks to the mother? Defects in the fetus? How many people would support abortion in the 2nd or even 3rd trimester given a Down’s Syndrome, or worse defect, baby?

Sebastian May 18, 2009 at 2:57 pm

““Should be illegal in the second trimester” suffers from vague questions again. Does that hold if there’s health risks to the mother? Defects in the fetus? How many people would support abortion in the 2nd or even 3rd trimester given a Down’s Syndrome, or worse defect, baby?”

Perhaps, but it is far enough from the 50% margin (72%) that it should be taken seriously.

Furthermore, it suggests a timing trendline which is not well reflected in the law, and is certainly not well reflected by the formal political positions of either party.

“A very clear majority of Americans (60%) believe that abortions should be restricted in a wide variety of situations.

The policy problem is if they disagree as to the situations.
The policy problem is if they disagree as to the situations.”

They don’t particularly seem to though. Unless you can come up with lots of people for example who believe that abortion should be allowed if the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother but NOT in the case of rape, this isn’t likely to be other than a theoretical objection.
Your Alice and Jane examples aren’t very helpful because I suspect the number of Alices who are not ok with the Jane situation are vanishingly small.

ockraz May 18, 2009 at 5:29 pm

I don’t understand the wording of the ANES questions. What does “the need for the abortion has been clearly established” mean?

Clyde Wilcox May 18, 2009 at 11:57 pm

Although John is right that aggregate abortion attitudes are generally stable, there is a statistically significant difference in the level of support for abortion in the GSS in the 2000s than in the decade before.

And a generational pattern where for the first time the youngest cohort is the least pro-choice.

That said, the general point that the public has not moved generally on abortion is correct.

But what does it tell us if their self classification DOES move?

I do not think it is of huge importance, but it is probably not entirely trivial that many people who favor abortion some of the time used to think of that as a pro-choice position, and now think of it as pro-life.

Tom Holbrook May 19, 2009 at 10:52 am

John,

The number of responses generated by this post, as well as the level of (cordial) disagreement over what the data mean, seems to verify that abortion remains a “hot” political issue. Interesting.

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: