Gallup’s latest poll found that 48 percent of Americans self-identify as “pro-life” and 45 percent as “pro-choice.” Gallup also finds that Americans think that the public is more pro-choice than it actually is. A majority of Americans and even a plurality of pro-lifers think that the majority is pro-choice.
One explanation may be that public opinion really was pro-choice (in the sense that most people considered themselves pro-choice) 20 years ago, and the public’s understanding of social views about abortion lags behind the actual views. That may be the explanation for another poll finding: that Americans think everyone else is more opposed to same-sex marriage than they actually are. But the explanation is more persuasive in the case of marriage because public opinion on that issue has moved so rapidly.
Another explanation for the abortion numbers is that the press for many of the last few decades has tended to exaggerate how pro-choice Americans are. Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw made that point in a 1990 series on the coverage of the abortion debate. In 2005, the Washington Post reported that “polls have consistently found support for fundamental abortion rights, even while the public backs some efforts to restrict access to the procedure.” That’s misleading spin. Certainly there are some polls that could be read that way. It is just as true that “polls have often found opposition to abortion with exceptions for unusual cases.”
I devoted a chapter in The Party of Death to public opinion on abortion, in part because I suspected that a distorted picture of public opinion causes some people to hold back in identifying themselves as pro-life and some politicians to overestimate the political costs of taking pro-life positions. Maybe now that picture is getting less distorted.