The Corner

Politics & Policy

New Poll Understates Public Opposition to Abortion

Pro-life activists celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling outside the Court in Washington June 26, 2014. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) recently released a poll about the role of religion in public policy. Much of the media coverage of the poll has focused on differences in public attitudes among various religious groups. For instance, many news outlets have noted that that white Evangelicals have significantly more conservative opinions regarding both abortion and LGBT issues than members of other faith traditions.

Some media outlets noted that the poll found that only a small percentage of respondents favor legal protections for the unborn. Specifically, the poll asked respondents whether they favored “making abortion illegal except in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the pregnant woman is at risk.” Just 37 percent of respondents said they either “slightly favored” or “strongly favored” such a policy.

But the wording used in the poll likely understates support for the pro-life position, because respondents who favor legal protection for all unborn children with no exceptions easily might have offered a negative response to this question based on the way it was phrased. Polls that offer a range of options for answers tend to provide a far more accurate measure of public attitudes toward abortion.

For instance, since 2008, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal have conducted six polls on abortion offering respondents five different policy choices. These polls show that an average of 46 percent of Americans think abortion should be either illegal or legal only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Similarly, a 2019 Marist poll commissioned by the Knights of Columbus found that 48 percent of Americans think abortion either should be banned or allowed in only a limited set of circumstances.

Over the past decade, public attitudes on abortion remained relatively stable, which in some respects is an accomplishment for the pro-life movement. There is a substantial body of public-opinion research indicating that individual attitudes on the legality of abortion are strongly correlated with attitudes toward the morality of premarital sex. But while polling data indicate Americans have been adopting more permissive attitudes on a range of issues pertaining to sexual morality, opinions on abortion have remained mostly the same. Making progress in the court of public opinion on sanctity of life issues will doubtless be difficult in a sexually permissive culture, but pro-lifers must continue to engage in this debate as we continue our efforts to restore legal protections to the preborn.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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