The Gallup polling organization conducted a poll on abortion to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. The results were quite different from the headline-grabbing NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that purported to show the first-ever majority support for abortion on demand.
Before we dig in, let us observe the standard ritual of intellectual cleansing for handling poll data, and stipulate that either or both of these polls might be inaccurate. Also, the questions were asked somewhat differently.
Gallup found 53 percent support for keeping the Roe decision in place, with 29 percent in favor of overturning it. That’s quite a bit different from the 70 percent support for Roe reported by the NBC/WSJ poll, which claimed it was “the highest percentage on this question since 1989.” On the contrary, Gallup noted that support for Roe dropped below 60 percent in 2006, and has remained more or less unchanged ever since. However, support for repeal has declined, and the percentage of people who declare themselves “unsure” rose to a record high of 18 percent.
It could be argued that people who have no opinion about overturning Roe vs. Wade are functionally in favor of keeping it, and with a 40-year history of reliable majority support, it has been accepted as a permanent feature of the legal landscape. However, this is a public opinion poll, not a roll-call vote in Congress, and mounting indifference is not intellectually equivalent to increased support.
More intriguing in contrast with the NBC/WSJ poll is Gallup’s finding on the general public attitude toward abortion on demand:
The same Dec. 27-30 poll also updated Gallup’s longest-running trend on abortion attitudes. This asks Americans if abortion should be “legal under any circumstances,” “legal only under certain circumstances,” or “illegal in all circumstances.” Currently, 52% favor the middle position, while 28% say it should always be legal and 18% never legal. Views on this have been fairly stable over the past four years.
The earlier poll didn’t say views were stable, or that most people think abortion should only be legal under certain circumstances. It captured the spotlight by claiming that “a majority of Americans – for the first time – believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.” Specifically, NBC/WSJ found that “54 percent of adults say that abortion should be legal either always or most of the time, while a combined 44 percent said it should be illegal, either with or without exceptions.”
Surely much of the discrepancy between the two polls comes from the nature of the questions, and the way the results are tabulated to create an impression of broad support or opposition. That big 52 percent majority favoring “the middle position” in the Gallup poll could be subdivided in any number of ways, depending on what restrictions they believe should be in place. How many limitations on abortion does one have to accept, in order to cross the border between “pro-choice” and “pro-life?”
For that matter, we might find some subdivisions within the always-legal or always-illegal crowd. Does everyone in Gallup’s 28 percent of absolute abortion supporters approve of sex-selection abortions?
Are the American people really moving in either direction, in a significant and sustained way? On the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, NBC and the Wall Street Journal say yes, Gallup says no. It can be difficult to get a consistent reading on a subject that many people find difficult to discuss… which is not at all the same thing as saying they don’t believe it is important.
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