A Gallup poll conducted last January, in addition to asking respondents to identify themselves as "Pro-Life" or "Pro-Choice," offered a third option: "Don’t Know What the Terms Mean." That category should include anyone who has ever studied abortion-related polling data.
This month’s election results confirm that the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" labels obscure a range of opinions on whether and when abortion is acceptable. The hidden diversity casts doubt on dire warnings from abortion rights groups about what would happen if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and stopped micromanaging state abortion laws.
According to data from SurveyUSA, South Dakota is the 11th most anti-abortion state, with 49 percent of residents identifying themselves as "pro-life" (compared to a weighted average of 38 percent for the whole country). Yet voters there rejected an abortion ban by 56 percent to 44 percent.
Those numbers are especially striking when you consider that voters knew the federal courts, bound by Roe, would have prevented the law from taking effect. If South Dakotans had expected the government to enforce the abortion ban (which the state legislature passed mainly to give the Supreme Court an opportunity to reconsider Roe), its opponents would have been more motivated, and the margin probably would have been even bigger.
The main argument against the law was that it allowed exceptions only for abortions necessary to save the mother’s life, a position that makes sense if you believe a fetus is a person from the moment of conception. The ban’s opponents said there should also be exceptions for rape and incest, which make sense only if you think abortion, though bad, is not the same as murder. After all, a baby is no less innocent because he’s the product of a crime.
In fact, ending a pregnancy caused by rape or incest amounts to an abortion for the sake of the mother’s "mental health," an elastic rationale the pro-life camp supposedly rejects. And if risks to mental health are an acceptable excuse for abortion, why not risks to physical health, even when they’re not life-threatening?
Election results in Kansas — the 15th most anti-abortion state, according to SurveyUSA — also suggest that some voters who call themselves "pro-life" have qualms about aggressive anti-abortion measures. Republican Attorney General Phill Kline, who attracted national attention by demanding patient records from abortion clinics, lost to Democrat Paul Morrison (who switched parties to run against Kline) by 16 percentage points.
By Kline’s own account, his anti-abortion activism was the main reason for his defeat. Morrison called the outcome "a victory for Kansans who want to make sure their most private personal records are kept private." Yet Kline claimed he sought the records as evidence of illegal late-term abortions, which you’d think would count as a good enough reason for self-identified pro-lifers, some of whom nevertheless seem to have voted against him, or at least failed to vote for him.
National polling data reinforce the point that pro-lifers are not necessarily absolutists. Between 40 percent and 45 percent of Americans call themselves "pro-life." But in a July survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, only 24 percent of respondents said abortion is "nearly always morally wrong." Even more surprising, various polls have found majorities as large as 66 percent against overturning Roe.
The other side of the coin is that Americans who describe themselves as "pro-choice" may nevertheless support restrictions on abortion. This month voters in California (the fifth most "pro-choice" state) and Oregon (the 13th) rejected initiatives requiring that parents be notified when their minor children seek abortions. But the margins were much smaller than they would have been if every self-described pro-choicer had voted no.
While voters’ general inclinations clearly make a difference, they do not always predict their positions on specific abortion laws. There is more common ground than the stark pro-life/pro-choice divide suggests.