More Americans now call themselves pro-life than pro-choice, according to a new Gallup poll —47 percent versus 45 percent. * It’s the third consecutive time since May 2009 that the pro-life label has beaten out the pro-choice label, and that’s a notable shift. Before last spring, more Americans had always called themselves pro-choice since Gallup started tracking American attitudes toward abortion in 1995. (Back then, only 33 percent of Americans called themselves pro-life.) Pro-life sentiment is up among women, as well as among people under 30, Gallup’s data show.
The reason for the tilt is that attitudes toward abortion are cleaving more strongly along partisan lines—but not even-handedly. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents identify with the pro-life position more strongly than they had before. Democrats, on the other hand, are more likely to call themselves pro-choice than they were last year, but those who merely lean Democrat are slightly more likely to call themselves pro-life.
Gallup senior editor Lydia Saad speculates that Republicans are responding, in part, to having a pro-choice Democrat in office. During the final years of the Bush administration, pro-life self-identification among Republicans increased a bit, and then in the past year it leapt by five points. “Republicans, in particular, may be less willing to identify as ‘pro-choice’ if they perceive that aligns themselves with the Democrats or Obama,” Saad said. Her findings on partisan attitudes toward abortion are consistent with the research of Nathaniel Persily, a professor of law and political science at Columbia Law School. He says that Republicans and conservatives are becoming more partisan on the whole, and so it follows that those who previously held moderate stances on abortion would move to the right.
Persily has another explanation to add to the mix: He attributes the shift toward the pro-life label to Obama’s softening of the language of Democratic support for abortion. Obama said about abortion in 2008 during his campaign that “there is something extraordinarily powerful about potential life and that that has a moral weight to it that we take into consideration when we’re having these debates.” For those in the mushy middle on abortion, hearing a president—even one who identifies as pro-choice—question the morality of abortion might scare them away from Planned Parenthood benefits.
Pro-choice and pro-life activists have competing theories of their own about why Gen Y in particular is tilting away from choice. Ten years ago, only 15 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds believed abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. Now 23 percent of Americans in that age range want to outlaw abortion. Some pro-choicers attribute the shift to abstinence-only sex education. Aimee R. Thorne-Thomsen, former executive director of the Pro-Choice Public Education Project, says she is skeptical of the Gallup numbers, but adds that twentysomethings have “grown up under a political system that demonized sexuality. Their consciousness has been under abstinence-only, promotion-of-marriage initiatives, so it’s a very narrowly based idea of appropriate behavior.” Which, for more young people in their 20s, does not include abortion.
Alternatively, the young pro-life activists I spoke to wonder if they have more support because of improved ultrasound technology. “My generation has seen ultrasound photos of ourselves and our siblings,” Kelsey Hazzard, the president of secularprolife.org, says, “so it’s sort of hard to put the ‘fetuses are just a clump of tissues’ line past us.”
The notion that more and more Americans are embracing the pro-life label is pretty terrifying for pro-choicers. But what does it really mean to call yourself pro-life or pro-choice? Do the labels actually track people’s views about the legality of abortion? The answer may be yes, but not in a simple or neat way. Though more people are calling themselves pro-life, the percentage of Americans who say abortion is morally wrong is down six points from last year. But at the same time, a Pew poll from last August showed that slightly more people are also saying that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, though the gain is only 1 percent from the previous September.
The upcoming Supreme Court nomination process could potentially shift things back to the pro-choice label. It’s not about Elena Kagan per se, but Gallup senior editor Lydia Saad says that when the abortion issue is raised in relation to the Supreme Court, the issue tends to help the pro-choice side—because, in the end, most people don’t want to overturn Roe v. Wade. Recent data back up the second part—according to a CBS News/New York Times poll from April says that 58 percent of Americans still believe that Roe v. Wade was a good thing.
Persily agrees with Saad’s take more than he does with the gauzier claims that abstinence-only education or ultrasounds have more fundamentally changed people’s minds. He also notes that since Obama’s election, more Americans have expressed support for rights related to gun ownership, a shift that mirrors the one toward the pro-life label. It’s too soon to tell whether the changing trend in attitudes augurs changes to the law. At this point, the embrace of the pro-life label appears politically—rather than morally—motivated.