Nuance matters in abortion debate


The idea has taken hold that Americans have become more conservative on abortion. Sarah Palin put this new conventional wisdom to political work in a speech two weeks ago when she claimed polls showed “more Americans proudly proclaiming themselves as pro-life . . . and that’s a huge victory.”

She’s not entirely wrong, but that doesn’t mean she’s right. You might be surprised to learn that only about 15% of Americans agree with the particulars of the “pro-life” policy of Palin’s Republican Party. Or that, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, 59% of Americans want Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, if she is confirmed, to uphold Roe vs. Wade.

So what’s the source of this new conventional wisdom?

Most of it stems from misleading media reporting abetted by partisan hype. Palin was specifically citing a Gallup poll released May 14 titled “The New Normal on Abortion: Americans More ‘Pro-Life.’ ” When Americans surveyed were asked, “With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life,” a plurality of 47% responded pro-life, 2 percentage points more than answered pro-choice. Indeed, it was the release a year ago this month of this same poll that launched the now accepted idea that public opinion on abortion was trending conservative. For the first time ever, Gallup reported, more Americans (51%) identified themselves as pro-life than as pro-choice (42%).


The data, however, are more ambiguous than the headline of the recent poll lets on. That’s because, as Gallup noted, this year’s two-point difference between the pro-choice 45% and the pro-life 47% is “not significant.” The spread is within the poll’s margin of error. (The remaining respondents 8% answered “no opinion.” ) No matter, according to the press release, the poll “confirmed the conservative shift in Americans’ views on abortion that Gallup first recorded a year ago.”

Gallup also neglected to mention that its May 2009 51% pro-life finding is widely considered by other polling experts to be an anomaly. Or that just two months later, the 9-point margin had shrunk to 1 point, again within that survey’s margin of error. In other words, the three polls on which the so-called trend in public opinion is based include one outlier and two with inconclusive results. Perhaps a more accurate line for Palin would have been, “Heck, we don’t know exactly how many Americans are pro-choice or pro-life, but our side is winning … maybe.”

What, then, do Americans really think about abortion? Let’s go back to the polls but look a little deeper. Major longitudinal polls agree that when asked about abortion policy, a majority has consistently supported legal abortion, albeit with restrictions. In each of the four most recent Supreme Court nominations, roughly 6 out of 10 Americans have said they wanted the next justice to uphold Roe, according to Washington Post/ABC News polls. And it was the nonpartisan American National Election Studies, the main source on voter opinion used by scholars, that over the last three decades found that no more than 15% agreed with the statement “by law, abortion should never be permitted,” the official position of the Republican Party. In 2008, ANES showed 41% of Americans agreeing with the statement “by law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice.”

The complete picture, then, is nuanced. A majority of Americans do not want to see abortion criminalized, but the nation is evenly divided between those who call themselves pro-life and those who call themselves pro-choice. Although abortion rights supporters can take heart that they retain the advantage on practical matters of law and policy, the antiabortion movement seems to be winning the framing war with its “pro-life” label. It is this trend, not changing policy views, that the Gallup polls have picked up.

Who, after all, could be against life? Between life and choice, life should win every time. That it doesn’t is only because most Americans who are polled on the question understand that “pro-life” is no more than code for the antiabortion movement. However, the finding that the “pro-choice” label is losing ground should indeed give abortion rights advocates pause, because how an issue is framed can decide its political fate.

“Pro-choice” has turned into a tone-deaf rallying cry, inadequate to our actual policy preferences and to the philosophical values Americans hold on the subject of abortion. It essentially cedes the moral high ground to the antiabortion movement. It doesn’t do enough to communicate the very American ideals at the foundation of the abortion rights movement — the belief that, in a free and democratic nation, the decision to have a child should rest with the individual woman and those with whom she freely consults.


Perhaps “pro-choice” was once good enough shorthand for liberty, human dignity, individualism, pluralism, self-government and women’s equality. But anyone who thinks it is still sufficient, as we enter our fifth decade of the culture wars, hasn’t been paying attention.

The words of three Supreme Court justices, all appointed by Republican presidents, can guide the abortion rights movement back to its deeply American roots. In the 1992 decision Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, upholding Roe, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Justice David Souter and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.”

Are you pro-freedom or pro-life? Now those are values worthy of debate.

Nancy L. Cohen is a historian and the author of “The Reconstruction of American Liberalism.”