Gallup has inundated us with the news this morning that more Americans now call themselves pro-life than pro-choice, according to its latest poll, by a margin of 51 percent to 52 percent, a drastic shift from the last time Gallup posed the question and the first time since 1995 that a majority of Gallup respondents have self-identified as pro-life.
But it may not be accurate to say that "America is now pro-life"--after all, a CNN/Opinion research poll released in late April showed pro-choice winning out over pro-life 49 percent to 45 percent. That poll had a larger pool of respondents (2,019) than Gallup's (1,015). (See more polling on abortion at Pollingreport.com.)
So what does the Gallup poll show us?
First of all, it's important to look beyond the self-identification of "pro-life" and "pro-choice." The abortion debate in America is about policy, not about those words--they do not encapsulate, for instance, whether a majority want abortion to be legal for pregnant women whose lives is threatened by the pregnancy in the third trimester. Some people who call themselves "pro-life" might say abortion should be legal in that case.
(Some newspapers don't use the term's "pro-life" and "pro-choice" at all, as a matter of style--they were coined by activists and are intended, for marketing purposes, to have loaded connotations.)
So a more relevant question for abortion policy might be another question Gallup asked--how often abortions should be legal: always, never, or "under certain circumstances."
The majority of Americans reside in the middle category here--that abortion should be legal "under certain circumstances." 53 percent hold that view, and that has remained relatively constant according to Gallup's numbers. Most of the shift has occurred among the two minority views, with a rise in "never" and a drop in "always" responses.
Breaking down the middle numbers further, Gallup actually found a shift to the left from last year. Most people in the middle believe abortion should be legal "only in a few circumstances," while relatively few believe it should be legal "under most circumstances"--but that has shifted a bit, with "few circumstances" dropping three percentage points and "most circumstances" picking up two. The breakdown is now 37 percent to 15 percent in favor of "only in a few circumstances."
Other polls have shown answers further to the left: with different wording, an April Quinnipiac poll found "usually legal" beating "usually illegal" 37 percent to 27 percent; a September NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found "illegal with a few exceptions" winning out over "legal most of the time" 37 percent to 24 percent.
Gallup's poll is just one poll, and it seems to indicate more of a shift among the fringes than in the mainstream, where the nuances of the debate take place.
Such a sharp increase in "pro-life" identification certainly is something, and Gallup is a reputable firm that has been polling on this issue for a long time, but it does not answer the central question about public opinion and abortion policy, which is: how does the legislation supported by Obama and pro-choice groups, the Freedom of Choice Act, sit with the American public?
That bill says abortions are legal prior to fetal viability, and only legal after fetal viability if the woman's life is in danger.
Gallup, in its analysis, suggests Americans are backing away from the "pro-choice" label in response to that legislation. That may be true--or it may not be. Gallup's questions do not get more specific than "most circumstances" and "only a few."