Partial Victory

The power of an unenforced abortion ban.

Last week, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie traveled to New Hampshire to criticize the Democratic presidential candidates. He faulted them on taxes, spending, and “partial-birth” abortion, a procedure (more accurately known as intact dilation and extraction) that was banned last month when President Bush signed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act into law. The ban has been blocked by the courts but remains potent for a different reason: The more it is debated in Congress, the courts, and the presidential campaign, the more it helps turn public opinion against abortion generally.

Support for a ban on the partial-birth procedure has risen sharply in the eight years since pro-life forces began using graphic descriptions and imagery to focus attention on it. According to National Election Studies data, collected regularly by the University of Michigan, ban support rose from 56 percent in 1997 to more than 70 percent in 2000. The percentage saying they “favored strongly” a ban grew even more sharply, from 46 percent to 63 percent. Gallup data tell a similar story, with support rising from 57 percent in 1996 to 66 percent in 2000 to 68 percent last month, down slightly from 70 percent in January.

Much of the growth in support for the ban comes from pro-choice Americans. In 1997, according to NES data, 39 percent of respondents who said abortion should always be legal “as a matter of personal choice” nevertheless supported a ban on partial-birth abortion, and another 12 percent said they did not know where they stood on the question of a ban. By 2000, the percentage of pro-choice respondents supporting the ban had increased to 56 percent, with only 8 percent offering a “don’t know” response.

But more significant, the ban has shrunk the pool of those taking a pro-choice stance in the first place. Two Gallup trends are instructive. First, the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as “pro-choice” has declined over the course of the partial-birth debate while the percentage calling themselves “pro-life” has increased. In September 1995, when Gallup first started asking the question, most Americans—56 percent—considered themselves pro-choice, while only a third considered themselves pro-life. The remaining 11 percent were unable or unwilling to place themselves in either camp.

As the partial-birth debate unfolded in Congress, in the courts, and in state legislatures—as Americans were confronted with the rhetoric of “infanticide” and the imagery of late-term abortion—the number of pro-life identifiers increased steadily, from 33 percent in 1995 to 36 percent in July 1996; 40 percent in the fall of 1997 up to 45 percent in early 1998, leveling off at the 41 percent-43 percent range from the spring of 1999 through the spring of 2001, and increasing to 45 percent-46 percent from the summer of 2001 through the fall of 2003. This 13-point increase was accompanied by a decrease in the percentage of Americans identifying as pro-choice, which stood at 48 percent, a slim plurality, by October 2003. The trend is clear: Over the course of the partial-birth abortion debate, citizens have shifted away from the “don’t know” and “pro-choice” categories and toward a pro-life identification.

A second Gallup series illustrates the change even more clearly. Since 1975 Gallup has asked, “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?” Throughout most of the 1980s, between a fifth and a quarter of Americans chose the “legal under any circumstances” response, growing to 29 percent in 1989 (the year of the Supreme Court’s Webster decision) and increasing to 31 percent in 1990 and 34 percent in 1992. It remained in the 31 percent-33 percent range for the next three years before falling back to 25 percent in 1996, 24 percent in 1997, and 23 percent in 1998. In October 2003, only 26 percent of Americans supported legal abortion under any circumstances, up slightly from 23 percent in May.

In short, since the start of the partial-birth debate, Americans have grown more likely to see themselves as pro-life, less likely to consider themselves pro-choice, and less likely to support abortion unconditionally.

How can we be certain that this is more than coincidence? By looking at experimental data. In a survey conducted in Michigan in the mid-1990s, a randomly selected half of the sample was first asked questions about partial-birth abortion, followed (much later in the survey) by a more general question about abortion’s legality. The other half heard the questions in the opposite order. If the partial-birth issue reframes the broader debate over abortion, shifting public opinion in a pro-life direction, responses to the general legality question should be more pro-life when it follows the partial-birth question. This is precisely what the results showed among respondents who were ambivalent about abortion in general. For those who took a strong pro-life or pro-choice position, the experimental manipulation made no difference. But for those who were conflicted or uncertain, simply encountering questions about partial-birth abortion made a pro-life stance on abortion’s legality more likely.

Public opinion researchers call this a “priming effect.” By bringing to mind a certain set of considerations—late-term abortion, graphic imagery, the language of “birth”—the partial-birth debate makes people who are ambivalent about abortion more likely to stake out a pro-life position. That is why the debate itself has helped the pro-life side and why it matters enormously what Bush, Gillespie, and the Democrats say or don’t say about the partial-birth procedure, even if the law banning it is never enforced.