Gallup received considerable attention Wednesday for new poll numbers showing that the share of Americans who call themselves “pro-choice” on the abortion issue has hit a record low of 41% while 50% now call themselves “pro-life.”
Attention-getting for sure, but what, if anything, does it mean?
One thing it clearly does not mean is that significant numbers of Americans have changed their views about when women should be allowed to have a legal abortion. Gallup actually asks that question in addition to asking Americans how they label themselves. On the issue of when abortions should be legal, Americans’ views have moved very little, Gallup’s numbers show. The share of Americans who believe that women should be able to legally obtain an abortion under at least some circumstances now is 77%. That figure has bounced more or less randomly between 76% and 84% over the past 12 years. Similarly, the percentage who believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances has fluctuated between 15% and 22% in Gallup polls since 2001. It now stands at 20%.
That’s consistent with other, larger, surveys that have found fairly little movement in American views on specific questions about when abortion should be legal. As George Washington University professor John Sides pointed out in a blog post Wednesday, the General Social Survey conducted by the University of Chicago has been asking specific questions about abortion since the mid-1970s and has found almost no significant change since the early 1990s: About 90% of Americans believe abortions should be legal if the mother’s “own health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy,” about 80% say the procedure should be legal if the pregnancy results from a rape or “there is a strong chance of serious defect in the baby,” and between 40% and 50% support legal abortions in four other situations – when a married woman does not want more children, when a single woman does not want to marry the baby’s father, when a family cannot afford more children or for any reason at all.
So if the change in how people identify themselves doesn’t seem to reflect a change in the policies they support, what does it mean? One strong possibility is that the “shift” reflects the ambiguous wording of the question. Gallup doesn’t define “pro-choice” or “pro-life”; it lets respondents choose the label they want. What appears to have happened is that some percentage of Americans who believe that abortion should be legal in some circumstances, but not all, now call themselves “pro-life” whereas people with similar views in previous polls called themselves “pro-choice.”
The reason for that change in labeling may reflect partisanship: Republicans and Republican-leaning independents may have grown uncomfortable with the “pro-choice” label as their party has more and more identified itself as “pro-life.”
Gallup found that the percentage of Republicans who identify themselves as “pro-choice” has fallen fairly steadily, from 30% in 2001 to 22% in the latest poll. Democrats have fluctuated a bit from year to year, but overall, have not changed – 55% called themselves pro-choice in 2001 and 58% do now. A big shift has also taken place among independents. In 2001, 56% of people who called themselves independents said they were pro-choice, but now 41% do. That shift has occurred during a decade in which people who call themselves independents have become a more Republican-leaning group, overall.