Ramesh makes a number of good points this morning as to why most Americans overestimate the level of public support for legal abortion. I agree that the media is partly to blame. The media often cherry picks individual polls and argues that more and more Americans support abortion rights. However, to properly analyze opinion trends, one should consider the same question asked by the same pollster. For instance, Rasmussen polls show consistently lower “pro-life” sentiment than Gallup polls. Also, many polls indicate strong support for the Roe v. Wade decision. However, many incorrectly think that reversing Roe would ban abortion entirely. Furthermore, some people are even unaware that Roe even dealt with abortion.
I also think part of the blame involves the pollsters themselves. Polling firms frequently ask whether respondents consider themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” This is likely because up until recently, people were more likely to describe themselves as “pro-choice.” Polling firms ask about broadly supported incremental pro-life laws far less frequently. For instance, since 1995 Gallup has asked respondents to identify themselves as either “pro-life” or “pro-choice” over 35 times. In that same timespan, they have asked about waiting periods before abortions three times and parental-involvement laws four times.
Pro-life groups have responded by commissioning their own surveys. Last summer NRLC commissioned a poll which showed strong public support for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The Chiaroscuro Foundation commissioned a poll in February which found many aspects of Governor Cuomo’s Reproductive Health Act were unpopular with New York residents. The Knights of Columbus also frequently conducts polls on abortion that offer a range of responses beyond “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” These polls nicely show that incremental pro-life laws enjoy broad support and that majorities of Americans oppose abortion in most circumstances.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan — Dearborn, a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.