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The Odd Discrepancy in Abortion Polling

The percentage of Americans identifying as “pro-choice” has been steadily decreasing in recent years, and this year is no exception. Gallup found that just 41 percent now say they are pro-choice – a record low – while 50 percent identify as pro-life.

But as Adam Serwer points out, that isn’t the whole story. The majority of Americans, 52 percent, still say that abortion should be legal “under certain circumstances,” which many pro-life activists would find unacceptable. From the Gallup survey:

Gallup’s longest-running measure of abortion views, established in 1975, asks Americans if abortion should be legal in all circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances. Since 2001, at least half of Americans have consistently chosen the middle position, saying abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, and the 52 percent saying this today is similar to the 50 percent in May 2011. The 25 percent currently wanting abortion to be legal in all cases and the 20 percent in favor of making it illegal in all cases are also similar to last year’s findings.

“Certain circumstances” is incredibly vague. Is it saving the life of the mother (which some pro-life activists support)? Cases of rape or incest? Allowing it during the early stages of pregnancy? Without knowing the breakdown, we can’t tell whether their views fall closer to the pro-life or the pro-choice position.

Many pro-choice activists argue that any legal restrictions on abortion are unacceptable, and that the decision should be left completely up to a woman and her doctor. If you believe life doesn’t begin until birth – or that the question of when life begins is completely subjective – then there should be no moral qualms about what happens to a fetus at any point of the pregnancy.

The fact that the majority of Americans say there should be some restrictions on abortion means they do have those moral qualms. Maybe some of them aren’t sure whether life starts at conception, but believe it does begin at some point early on in the pregnancy. Or maybe some believe life starts at conception, but that taking this life is necessary in some rare and horrible circumstances. Either way, the fact that more Americans identify as pro-life seems to be a rejection of the pro-choice movement’s nonchalant — and sometimes almost celebratory — view of abortion. The majority of Americans might support abortion in certain cases, but it’s likely to be something they grapple with morally.


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