Last week’s Gallup survey showing significant increases in the percentage of Americans who identify as “pro-life” has sent the mainstream media’s spin machine into overdrive. A number of pro-choice pundits, including Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times, have aggressively tried to downplay the survey results (for a different take, see NRO’s symposium from last week). These commentators typically make one of two points. First, they contend that the survey results showed little change in attitudes toward either the morality of abortion or the circumstances where abortion should be legal. Second, they argue that only a relatively small percentage of Americans oppose abortion in all circumstances.
Contrary to the mainstream-media spin, the results of the Gallup survey are important, for several reasons. The fact that a higher percentage of Americans identify as pro-life likely means more people are comfortable voting for pro-life candidates or supporting pro-life legislation. It also shows that pro-life movement’s reputation is improving. At one point, many Americans who opposed abortion may have been uncomfortable describing themselves as “pro-life.” These people may have been reluctant to identify with a cause that was often marginalized. They also may have linked the mainstream pro-life movement to abortion-clinic violence. As such, the fact that more Americans are comfortable with the “pro-life” label is a reason for optimism.
Additionally, the attempts by the mainstream media to downplay the results are unpersuasive. It is true that the survey showed relatively little change in the percentage of Americans who thought that abortion was morally wrong. It is also true that the results showed little change in the percentage of Americans who thought abortion should be legally available in either no circumstances or few circumstances. That said, public opinion on abortion tends to be very nuanced. The recent gains in pro-life sentiment may well show increased opposition to abortion in specific circumstances not captured by the recent Gallup survey.
Furthermore, the media has failed to report that a wide range of survey questions show that the pro-life position has made some impressive long-term gains in the court of public opinion. For instance, the percentage of Americans who thought abortion should be illegal in all circumstances consistently declined throughout the 1970s and 1980s — and stood a only 13 percent in April of 1990. However, last week’s Gallup survey showed that figure is up to 20 percent. Similarly, in 1994, only 51 percent of Americans thought abortion should be legal in only a few circumstances or in no circumstances. Gallup surveys taken during the past two years consistently place that figure between 58 and 61 percent. Overall, both long-term and short-term public-opinion trends should offer plenty of encouragement to pro-life activists.
— 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 in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New