Public Views on Abortion Have Been Rock Steady for 40 Years

Over at Bloomberg, Ramesh Ponnuru argues that an incrementalist approach has served the anti-abortion movement well:

Polling does not suggest that pro-lifers’ incrementalist approach has led to entrenched support for abortion in our culture. The movement’s turn toward incrementalism coincided with a substantial increase in the percentage of Americans who identified with it. In 1995, Gallup found that 56 percent of Americans considered themselves pro-choice and only 33 percent considered themselves pro-life. Its latest finding was a much more even 49-45 plurality for the pro-choice side.

That sounds impressive, but I’ve warned you before not to believe anyone who suggests that public opinion has changed in any dramatic way on abortion. To see this, let’s go straight to the Gallup poll that Ponnuru mentions:

This looks pretty flat, no? If you squint, you might see a very slight increase in pro-life voters, but that’s all. However, it is true that if you cherry pick the year 1995 as your starting point, it looks like the pro-life forces have made substantial gains. So what happened in 1995? Let’s take a look at another Gallup chart that has a longer timeframe:

If you ask what people think, rather than asking them to identify with a group they may or may not fully understand, it turns out that nothing happened in 1995. In fact, nothing much has happened since 1976. This time, if you squint, you can see a slight increase in “always legal” and a slight decrease in “always illegal,” but that’s it. There’s just not much going on, and support for banning abortion entirely is, and always has been, a very small minority position.

Obviously this could change. If a conservative Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, I’ll bet we’d see some change. For now, however, nearly half a century of polling data suggests that public opinion is all but set in concrete. Americans mostly think abortion should be legal, with disagreement around the edges about just how permissive the rules should be (especially in the second trimester). Only a fifth of the public thinks it should be banned.

That’s it. That’s the way it was 40 years ago and that’s the way it is today.

UPDATE: I originally said that public opinion on abortion seemed to be “set in cement.” I have been informed that this is very, very wrong, and the correct term for this figure of speech is “set in concrete. I have corrected the text.


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