Many in the right-to-life movement are encouraged by the release of a recent survey which shows that pro-lifers have made substantial gains in public opinion during the past year. This poll, conducted by Gallup from May 7-10, found that 51 percent of Americans describe themselves as pro-life while only 42 percent describe themselves as pro-choice. This is the first time that a Gallup survey has found that a higher percentage of Americans identifying themselves as pro-life rather than pro-choice.
Not surprisingly, some have been quick to dismiss the results. Bonnie Erbe, writing for US News and World Report, says that most of the pro-life gains in public opinion have come from registered Republicans. She goes on to argue that a more uniformly pro-life Republican party will make it more difficult to win the support of moderate voters.
To a certain extent, I think that some pro-lifers are reading too much into this particular survey. Poll results tend to fluctuate, and I would like to see multiple surveys with similar results before I would be confident about these particular short term gains in pro-life public opinion.
That having been said, the broader gains that pro-lifers have made in public opinion over time can be readily seen in other ways. In fact, Erbe and others of like mind are somewhat naïve if they have missed the change in abortion politics over the past several years. For instance, the pro-choice Governors who were once thought to be the future of the Republican party (Whitman, Weld, Wilson) have vanished from the political scene. Furthermore, the amount of infighting over the Republican party’s pro-life plank has greatly diminished.
More importantly, Democrats have made a concerted effort to reach out to pro-life voters. Neither Barack Obama nor John Kerry even mentioned support for legal abortion during their respective acceptance speeches at the 2004 and 2008 Democratic convention. When asked about abortion, President Obama seems somewhat dodgy and a little evasive. Instead of presenting the pro-choice position in a shrill, uncompromising way, he usually talks about the need to reduce abortion and ways of finding common ground. Furthermore, many Democrats have (unpersuasively) made the argument that more generous welfare programs are en effective strategy for reducing abortion.
There is certainly not a perfect correlation between public opinion and public policy. And Democrats, for all their rhetoric, are doing precious little on the policy side to offer much encouragement to pro-lifers. That having been said, no political movement has every been hurt by gaining public support. Furthermore, as I am sure veteran pro-lifers realize, even a Republican party that is more unified in its pro-life stance is certainly not an accomplishment to be taken lightly.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a visiting fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.