Pro-Choice Americans at a Record Low – But Does it Matter in the Abortion Debate?

A Gallup poll released last week showed that only 41% of Americans today consider themselves “pro-choice,” versus 50% who consider themselves “pro-life.” A quick glance at the chart below – which shows the fluctuations since 1995, when Gallup began polling using the specific terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” – has one particularly notable trend: It wasn’t until 2009 that these views began fluctuating most dramatically, and that pro-life responses actually took a lead over pro-choice ones.


Planned Parenthood, Jezebel, and others asked the question “so what?” and were quick to dismiss these results as nothing but a lesson in how meaningless these labels have become. They say that the public’s views on abortion remain consistent because when these same participants were asked if abortion should be allowed in “all circumstances,” “some circumstances,” or “no circumstances,” the majority of Americans (52%) answered “some circumstances” This has remained fairly consistent over the years Gallup has polled on abortion, and thus pro-choice and pro-life are less accurate indicators of respondants' views. However, while these labels may be fluid and defined differently by each person as the Jezebel article argues, I think the fact that a shrinking number of Americans want to associate themselves as “pro-choice” is still very significant. 

In the same way that people consider the meaning of pro-choice or pro-life differently, what each person considers “some circumstances” also varies widely. The category includes people who believe abortion should be illegal in many circumstances. A person who checked the “some circumstances” category on the Gallup poll but also picked “pro-life” – or at least was unwilling to pick “pro-choice” – could very well support any of the recent restrictions that have been brought forward this year, from the Catholic Church’s fight against Obama’s health care mandate, proposed laws like vaginal ultrasounds, Arizona’s “wrong birth” bill, Utah’s 72-hour waiting period, and more. At the very least, many of these “some circumstances” people are unlikely to be vocal critics.

This particularly heightened flux in pro-life/pro-choice views started in 2009, when the Tea Party formed and the most conservative wing of the Republican Party began organizing and gaining influence within the party, in legislatures, and at the national level. Perhaps the majority of Americans still don’t want to see Roe overturned, but if they are unwilling to associate themselves with “pro-choice,” then conservative elements clearly have gained a lot of ground in strengthening the pro-life message and promoting policies that may not make abortion or contraception outright illegal for women, but still limited.With increasing force and political influence, it seems the GOP has succeeded more than ever in branding “pro-life” as the higher moral choice, as only 38% say abortion morally acceptable, while 51% say morally wrong. 

A tepid support for abortion because it is a necessary evil is hardly a good ally in a pro-choice fight. Andrew Rosenberg at the New York Times argues that because of this fact, abortion advocates should essentially give up trying to win the moral argument, and simply push the practical, legal aspects of the issue which will grant them greater success in their fight to keep abortion accessible to women. 

In a country where “moral values” inevitably becomes an important topic in every election, however, the fight over the morality of the issue matters immensely. If Americans see pro-life as the only truly moral choice and increasingly buy into the de-moralizing argument, it will have implications in the strength of the pro-choice movement’s allies. Will Americans be as vehement as pro-life advocates and as willing to support a hard-line stance in defense of universal access to abortions? Or will they slowly fall into the “some circumstances” category that could include waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, and a de-funded Planned Parenthood? How does the pro-choice movement galvanize a base of Roe supporters that don't even want to be associated with it? 

The fewer Americans who identify themselves as pro-choice – and see it as a moral choice – the more difficult the battle for reproductive rights on the left will be in a country that considers moral values of utmost importance. Overall, the number of Americans declaring pro-choice has seen a 15 point change in the past two decades; that’s a huge drop that can't be ignored. With the strength of the Tea Party and the socially conservative wing of the Republican Party pushing full force, pro-choice advocates should perhaps pay a little more attention to how many Americans are willing to take a true pro-choice pledge.