About That Pro-Life Majority…

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You may remember that back in May, Gallup released a poll showing that for the first time, a majority of Americans in their survey described themselves as “pro-life” rather than “pro-choice.” The results represented a fairly dramatic flip in abortion numbers–51 to 42, when just six months earlier the spread had been a 50 to 44 pro-choice majority.

At the time my editors asked me what I thought of the surprising shift and I said I thought it was a fluke. Yes, the poll was conducted in the midst of the brouhaha over Obama’s invitation to speak at Notre Dame. And at the same time, progressive Catholics had been engaged in efforts to expand the “pro-life” label to issues beyond abortion, raising the possibility that some respondents would be more willing to identify themselves as “pro-life.” But I didn’t think that was enough to account for such a dramatic swing. The percentages of people calling themselves “pro-life” and “pro-choice” have remained reasonably consistent over the past decade–and the number supporting keeping abortion legal in at least some circumstances has been even steadier. 

My skeptical interpretation of the poll didn’t turn out to be terribly popular. The idea that just a few months after the election of a pro-choice president, Americans were racing to embrace the pro-life cause was too tempting a storyline. The poll made headlines everywhere, and we ran an essay on it anyway. 

Now along comes a follow-up poll from Gallup and whaddya know, the much ballyhooed pro-life majority seems to have disappeared. The percentages of Americans calling themselves “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are essentially the same (47% for pro-life; 46% for pro-choice). Meanwhile, the positions they hold–a more useful indicator than the labels people choose for themselves–haven’t budged. A solid 78% think abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances. 

I’m with Mark Silk, who thinks that the most interesting finding is that approximately 60% of those who describe themselves as “pro-life” believe that abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances. Anti-abortion activists would say they’re not really pro-life, just like they insist that politicians like Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) who support the use of contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies should not be described as pro-life. But clearly many Americans are comfortable thinking of themselves as “pro-life” and at the same time holding the belief that abortion should be legal. Now that’s a story.