Karlyn Bowman, who studies public opinion for the American Enterprise Institute, has compiled poll data about abortion from several years into one handy document. Her conclusion is that public opinion on the issue has been “remarkably stable.” When Gallup asked whether abortion should be available under all, some, or no circumstances, respondents split 21-54-22 in April 1975. In May 2005, they split 23-53-22. That is impressive stability.
Yet there has been some movement. In some respects, opinion seems to have shifted first in a pro-choice direction and then in a pro-life direction. The high tide for the pro-choicers seems to have been in the mid-’90s. In February 1995 the split was 33-50-15. (Scan pages 6-7 of the document yourself and you’ll see that none of these three dates were outliers. Each was consistent with the findings of other polls taken around that time. The trend appears to be real.)
Everyone who has looked at the polls on abortion knows how much the specific wording of the question matters. The polls on Roe come out much more pro-choice than the polls on the circumstances under which abortion should be legal. The polls on whether someone considers himself pro-life or pro-choice come out somewhere in between.
On those latter polls, too, there has been movement. In September 1995, Gallup found that 56 percent of the public considered itself pro-choice and only 33 percent pro-life. By August 1997, however, that 23-point gap had shrunk to 3 points (47-44). With one exception, which looks like a blip, the gap stayed in the single digits through May 2005 (48-44), which is where Bowman’s compilation leaves the story.
But all of a sudden, and without attracting much notice, the pro-choicers have pulled away again. A July poll had pro-choicers outnumbering pro-lifers by 51 to 42 percent. By late August, the gap had grown to 54-38. A SurveyUSA poll taken around the same time found a similar result. It seems as though two-thirds of the pro-life gain on this front over the last decade has been erased.
So what explains how the pro-lifers have risen and then fallen? I have a theory, which I retain the right to modify or discard if a better one comes along.
There are a lot of possible explanations for the upward trend over the last decade, and probably several of them played a role. But I think the most powerful explanation, especially given that the pivotal years are 1995-97, is the pro-life campaign against partial-birth abortion. When the major pro-life proposal was a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, people who opposed an amendment tended to think of themselves as pro-choice. The legislative campaign against partial-birth abortion, which began in the summer of 1995, changed what some people thought about first when they thought about abortion. If being pro-choice meant being for partial-birth abortion, and being pro-life meant being against it, those people were on the pro-life side.
My guess is that the campaign also drove the drop in the percentage of people who supported abortion’s availability in all circumstances–which occurred around the same time. (A number of other questions show a contemporaneous pro-life trend, although the magnitudes vary.)
So what has happened over the last few months? It’s tempting to put forward the Terri Schiavo case, which was widely discussed as a Waterloo for pro-lifers. But Schiavo died at the end of March, and the Gallup numbers for May were, as I noted, still showing near-parity for pro-lifers.
I can only assume that it was the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at the beginning of July, and Bush’s initial nomination of John Roberts to replace her, that has driven people back into the pro-choice camp. The Supreme Court vacancy made Roe the first thing people think about when they think about abortion. And the public supports Roe for a variety of reasons (including the mistaken beliefs that it legalizes abortion only in the first three months and that to overturn it would be to ban all abortions). Moreover, the debate over Roe has been pretty one-sided. The leading pro-choice spokesmen in politics have been saying that Roe is vitally important but threatened. The leading pro-life figures, President Bush and congressional Republicans, have mostly tried to change the subject rather than to make the case that the country can live without Roe.
If my theory is correct, the recent pro-choice wave may subside when the confirmation hearings are over. It is true that the Supreme Court will probably decide two abortion cases this term: one concerning parental consent and another partial-birth abortion. While there will be attempts to claim that Roe is under attack in the cases, the specific issues involved tend to play to pro-life strengths. This pro-choice moment may not last long–unless, that is, a third vacancy opens up during this term.
–Ramesh Ponnuru, an NR senior editor is at work on a book about the sanctity of life and American politics.