The Corner

Politics & Policy

Public Opinion on Abortion Is Ambiguous

(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

In The Bulwark, a new online conservative magazine, Tim Miller writes to caution Democrats against extremism in defense of late-term abortion. In passing, though, he describes polling on abortion in a way that overstates how much the public favors legal abortion. He notes that a May 2018 Gallup poll found that 50 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in “certain circumstances” while 29 percent say it should be legal under “any circumstances” and 18 percent want it illegal in all circumstances. He sums it up by saying that the majority position is that abortion should be “legal but with restrictions.”

Gallup has often asked a follow-up question, though, for the people who picked the middle option. In that 2018 poll, 35 percent said abortion should be legal “only in a few circumstances” and 14 percent said it should be legal “in most circumstances.” That works out to 53 percent who say it should be legal in no or few circumstances and 43 percent who say it should be legal in most or any circumstances. That Gallup poll seems more consistent with a description of the majority as favoring “bans with exceptions” than “legal abortion with restrictions.”

But of course that Gallup poll isn’t the last word. It’s consistent with some other polling, notably the Marist polling commissioned each year by the Knights of Columbus, which most recently found 48 percent of respondents wanted to ban abortion or ban it with exceptions for rape, incest, and threats to the mother’s life.

My point is not that there is a pro-life majority. There are other polling questions on which majorities side with pro-choicers. “Should abortion be a decision between a woman and her doctor?” elicits a positive response, for example. My point is that there’s no pro-choice majority, either. There is a lot of genuine ambivalence, and perhaps — I’d speculate — a disinclination to dwell on the issue to attempt to resolve it.

Ema O’Connor had a pretty good review of the problem of capturing public opinion on abortion in BuzzFeed a few months ago.

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Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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