Last week, Gallup released new data that, at first glance, appeared to show a significant change in Americans’ perspectives on abortion. The number of Americans who identify as “pro-choice” has dropped six points since last July, from 47 percent to 41 percent, while half (50 percent) of Americans identify as “pro-life.” Given the charged election year atmosphere, it is not surprising that some have leapt to the conclusion that this shift represents a dramatic sea change in support for the legality of abortion.
But such interpretations raise the question of whether these binary, politicized labels accurately capture Americans’ nuanced views on abortion. Last summer, a major national survey by Public Religion Research Institute uncovered a surprising but critical feature of the abortion debate: 7-in-10 Americans reported that the term “pro-choice” described them somewhat well (32 percent) or very well (38 percent), and nearly two-thirds simultaneously said that the term “pro-life” described them somewhat well (31 percent) or very well (35 percent). In other words: when they were not forced to choose between one label and the other, over 4-in-10 (43 percent) Americans said that they were both “pro-choice” and “pro-life.”
These overlapping identities are present in virtually every demographic group. For example, it is true of Democrats (56 percent “pro-life”; 81 percent “pro-choice”), Independents (66 percent “pro-life”; 73 percent “pro-choice”), and Republicans (79 percent “pro-life”; 52 percent “pro-choice”). Among religious groups, with the exception of white evangelical Protestants, solid majorities of every major religious group say both terms describe them at least somewhat well. And even in the case of white evangelical Protestants, although two-thirds (67 percent) say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases and 8-in-10 (80 percent) say that the term “pro-life” describes them at least somewhat well, nearly half (48 percent) nonetheless identify as “pro-choice.”
These seemingly contradictory findings make more sense when respondents are asked about the circumstances under which they believe that abortion should be legal. Strong majorities of Americans say that abortion should be legal if the pregnant woman’s physical (86 percent) or mental (74 percent) health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy, if the woman became pregnant as a result of rape (79 percent), or if there is a serious chance of defect in the baby (66 percent). But fewer than 4-in-10 (39 percent) agree that a pregnant woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion if the principal reason for her choice is that she is not married and does not want to marry the man.
This complexity is borne out in Gallup’s findings. Support for legal abortion has remained steady even as Americans’ identification with the politicized “pro-choice” or “pro-life” labels has fluctuated. Using binary labels to gauge public opinion on an issue as nuanced and complicated as abortion will be futile unless it is accompanied by questions that delve into Americans’ intricate – and sometimes contradictory – perspectives on abortion. The lesson here is this: on the issue of abortion, where attitudes about legality have been remarkably steady for decades, forced choice questions about political labels may tell us something about the current direction of the shifting rhetorical winds, but these results shouldn’t be mistaken to be the map of the legal landscape itself.