Why Abortion Polls Don't Mean All That Much

What do the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” mean when both camps can graft their position onto the same numbers?

Supporters of Texas women's right to reproductive decisions rally at the Texas State capitol on July 1, 2013 in Austin, Texas.

Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

For the first time in seven years, Americans who identify as “pro-choice” surpass those who identify as “pro-life” by what the polling organization Gallup calls "a statistically significant" margin. The latest Gallup poll released last week on abortion shows that 50 percent of U.S. adults call themselves pro-choice, and 44 percent self-identify as pro-life.

Marcy Stech, the communications director for the PAC EMILY’s List, which supports abortion rights, celebrated the news. “The bottom line here is that the overwhelming number of Americans believe that women should have access to safe, legal abortions—can make decisions themselves, not with the help of politicians,” she said.

But Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, saw another bottom line. “I’m very encouraged by the poll,” she said. “We have a majority of people who do not approve of the way abortion is being practiced in this country today." Tobias looked at the percentage of respondents who said abortion should be illegal (19) or legal “in only a few circumstances” (36), versus those who said abortion should be legal under any circumstances (29) or in most circumstances (13), and concluded, “I think this is a 55/42 in our favor.”

But how can this be? How can Gallup’s latest findings come as welcome news to both sides in the debate? 

The answer has a great deal to do with political language, which can evolve quickly, skewing poll results in unpredictable ways. Another Gallup poll released this month showed that for the first time on record, the percentage of American adults who say they are “socially conservative” is no longer greater than the percentage who say they’re are “socially liberal.” (Gallup started tracking the numbers in 1990.) The share of Americans who identify as “socially conservative” is down, and those who consider themselves “socially liberal” is up—the percentages are currently the same, meeting at 31 percent. 

Regarding abortion rights, the words “pro-choice” and “pro-life” were designed to attract the maximum number of adherents, and as the poll results seem to suggest, it's easy for people to imagine being both simultaneously. (Many news organizations, including Bloomberg and the New York Times, work hard to avoid using them.) Indeed, Tobias of the Right to Life Committee, in interpreting the poll results, made a semantic argument. She argued that if the Gallup questions had been posed to her, she wouldn’t have said abortion should be illegal under any circumstances. She believes abortion should be legal “if the mother’s life is in danger by carrying the pregnancy to term.”

“So 23 percent of people identified as pro-choice selected the same option as I would,” she said, meaning legal in only a few circumstances

Tobias strongly identifies as pro-life. And yet, she believes that abortion should be legal in the extreme instance that a mother’s life is in danger—that is, in the parlance of the Gallup poll, "in only a few circumstances." 

At the margins, some numbers are even more anomalous. Four percent of U.S. adults who identify as 'pro-life,' according to Gallup, believe abortion should be "legal under any circumstances," whereas a corresponding four percent who identify as pro-choice believe abortion should be "illegal in all circumstances.” 

Tobias maintains that, for politicians, being pro-life is “always an advantage. It never hurts a pro-life candidate to take a strong pro-life candidate stand.” But of course that elides the semantic distinctions: What if a candidate, like four percent of those polled by Gallup, were to identify as pro-life, but believe abortion should be, whatever the circumstance, legal? 

Erika West, the political director of NARAL Pro-Choice America also welcomed Gallup’s findings. But in NARAL's own polling, she said, the questions were framed differently in order to focus on what she sees as the crucial issue. There's a difference, she said, between “when abortion is appropriate for another person—many women may have different feelings, complex ones, about whether or not an abortion is right for them or their families—and when it should be legal. The question is really about legality: Ask when abortion should be legal and in what circumstances.”

Agreement on this most contentious of issues is a long way away—but moving through the semantic smoke may be a first step on the path.

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