The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has released an interesting poll this week regarding public attitudes toward legal abortion. Most public-opinion polls conducted by media outlets and survey-research firms contact only several hundred people. This PRRI survey, conducted between March and December of last year, surveyed more than 40,000 Americans. As a result, it is able to provide state-level data on public attitudes toward life issues, and on attitudes about abortion among some relatively small demographic groups.
The poll contains two findings that are particularly helpful to the pro-life movement. First, this poll, like several polls conducted so far this year, shows that a plurality of Americans oppose using Medicaid funding to cover the costs of abortion procedures. When asked if government health-insurance programs for low-income women, such as Medicaid, should cover abortions, 46 percent of respondents agreed and 48 percent disagreed. Survey questions that specifically ask about taxpayer funding of abortion typically show higher levels of disapproval. Even so, it is still noteworthy that even when polls use wording sympathetic to taxpayer funding of abortion, a plurality of Americans still express disapproval.
Second, this poll bolsters an existing body of survey research showing that, among single-issue abortion voters, the pro-life position continues to enjoy a sizable advantage. The PPRI survey shows that 27 percent of Americans who oppose abortion will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on the issue. In contrast, just 18 percent of voters who describe themselves as pro-choice will only vote for a candidate who favors legal abortion. Pundits and political professionals often encourage pro-life candidates to downplay their opposition to abortion in order to be more electable. This poll, along with many other surveys, suggests that espousing pro-life beliefs might be politically advantageous.
Unfortunately, this poll has some shortcomings. Since it was conducted in 2018, the respondents had yet to experience the changes in abortion policy that have taken place this year, including legislative efforts in states such as New York and Illinois to expand access to legal abortion, as well as efforts in states such as Missouri, Georgia, and Alabama to protect the unborn.
That the PRRI poll is broken down by religious denomination is interesting, though scholars of public opinion know that church attendance tends to be a better predictor of abortion attitudes than denominational affiliation is. Unfortunately, this survey failed to ask questions about either self-described religiosity or church attendance.
What’s more, the wording of the survey questions is somewhat favorable to the pro-abortion-rights position. When it asks about attitudes toward abortion, pro-life respondents can say that “abortion should be illegal in all cases” or “illegal in a most cases.” Polls that give respondents the option of saying that abortion should be “legal only in a few circumstances,” meanwhile, tend to report higher levels of public support for the pro-life position. Similarly, people are more likely to say they oppose taxpayer funding of abortion than “Medicaid coverage” of abortion.
Abortion certainly will be a highly salient issue in the 2020 election, as every Democratic presidential candidate supports Roe v. Wade and has publicly opposed the Hyde amendment, which prevents the direct taxpayer funding of abortion. Pro-lifers should welcome surveys that show both opposition to taxpayer funding and higher levels of intensity among pro-life voters.