Is a Pro-Choice Majority Disappearing?

In the June 28 Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes offered as one reason why George W. Bush should stop fudging on abortion the fact that “opinion has shifted in the late 1990s toward the pro-life position. The pro-choice majority has vanished, dropping from 56 percent in 1996 to 48 percent now in a USA Today/CNN poll. Folks who identify themselves as pro-life rose from 36 percent to 42 percent.”

Reading this, Chatterbox thought: What, a pro-choice majority has disappeared in the United States? Why haven’t I read this anywhere before? Then Chatterbox looked up the abortion polls on, a handy nonpartisan polling Web site and discovered that the reason this hadn’t been reported elsewhere was that it wasn’t really true.

The poll finding Barnes cited was in response to the question, “With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?” This is not really the best way to ask the question, because when you ask it this way you usually end up with about 10 percent of your sample saying they don’t know what the terms mean, or saying they’re both pro-choice and pro-life, or saying they’re neither, or saying they have no opinion at all. Still, the phrasing of this question hasn’t become any more clumsy during the late 1990s. Is there a trend? Not really. In July 1996, 53 percent of respondents (not 56 percent, as Barnes reported) identified themselves as pro-choice. That dropped to 47 percent in August 1997, then bounced back up to 51 percent in November 1997, then slipped back down to 48 percent in January 1998 and May 1999. In other words, a teensy majority of people that consciously embraced the confusing label, “pro-choice,” disappeared, reappeared, then disappeared again. Similarly, the substantial minority of people who consciously embraced the equally confusing label, “pro-life,” went from 36 percent up to 44 percent, then back down to 40 percent, then up to 45 percent, then down to 42 percent. That’s hardly a steady march forward.

In that same USA Today/CNN poll, respondents were asked: “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?” That’s a much less confusing way to pose the question, and this time a small majority, 55 percent, chose “legal only under certain circumstances.” As with the other question, no particular trend was evident between July 1996 and May 1999.

But perhaps you still find the question’s phrasing unsatisfactory. After all, “legal only under certain circumstances” can mean you favor the abortion laws we have now, or it can mean you favor restricting abortion only to cases involving rape or incest. An even better way to put the question is the way it was phrased in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted just last week by the bipartisan team of Peter Hart and Robert Teeter. Here is the question: “Between these positions, which do you tend to side with more? Position A: Government should pass more laws that restrict the availability of abortions. Position B: The government should not interfere with a woman’s access to abortion.” In response to this admirably lucid query, fully 65 percent of the respondents said the government “should not interfere with a woman’s access to abortion,” compared with only 30 percent who said it should “restrict the availability of abortions” (the remaining 5 percent said they were “not sure”). For lack of a better term, one might call that a “pro-choice majority.”