Public Divided on "Pro-Choice" vs. "Pro-Life" Abortion Labels

by Lydia Saad

Few are single-issue voters


PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans hold a complex set of beliefs about the legality of terminating a woman's pregnancy. The majority want the Supreme Court to uphold its 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision which protects abortion rights. Most Americans also say abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances, and believe there should be a ban on "late-term" or "partial-birth" abortions. But when the entire issue is distilled to the labels most commonly used on each side of the debate -- pro-choice vs. pro-life -- the public is split nearly down the middle.

According to Gallup's annual Values and Belief survey, conducted May 10-13, 2007, 49% of Americans consider themselves pro-choice and 45% call themselves pro-life. The balance of opinion on this measure has varied somewhat since Gallup instituted it 12 years ago, in 1995. Since 1998, however, the two groups have been fairly evenly matched in size, with slightly more Americans tending to call themselves pro-choice.

Middle Ground Is Favored

When it comes to Americans' specific attitudes about the legality of abortion, public opinion is somewhat more conservative than its attachment to these labels would suggest. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans (58%) think abortion should either be limited to only a few circumstances or illegal in all circumstances. Just 4 in 10 (41%) think it should be legal in all or most circumstances.

Another way to look at this, however, is that relatively few Americans are positioned at either extreme of the spectrum of beliefs -- saying abortion should be legal in either all cirumstances (26%) or illegal in all circumstances (18%). The majority falls somewhere in the middle.

Gallup's root question measuring these abortion attitudes simply asks, "Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?" The trend, which dates from 1975, shows a majority of Americans have consistently fallen into the middle group.

Political Flashpoints

Abortion is never far from the public eye. Most recently, the focus of attention has been on the Supreme Court's decision last month to uphold a federal law banning partial-birth abortions, as well as on the Republican Party's presidential candidates' views on the issue of abortion more generally.

As recently reported by Gallup Managing Editor Jeffrey M. Jones (see "Slim Majority Approves of Supreme Court Following Partial-Birth Ruling" in Related Items), the latest poll finds most Americans in philosophical agreement with the Court's decision in this case. Seventy-two percent believe the specific abortion procedure known as late-term or partial-birth abortion should be illegal; only 22% believe it should be legal. Americans' views on the issue do not appear to have changed since the question was previously asked in October of 2003.

Pro-choice critics of the partial-birth decision see it as a step on the path toward a complete reversal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion broadly legal in the United States. And, while Americans would not likely share these critics' disappointment with the partial-birth case, they would generally agree that Roe should remain the law of the land on abortion. Only 35% of Americans say they would like to see the Supreme Court overturn this decision; a slight majority, 53%, say they would not like to see it overturned.

The abortion issue could be pivotal in deciding the next president of the United States, at least to the degree that it influences Republican voter preferences in nominating their party's candidate. This could play out most dramatically if the current Republican frontrunner, Rudy Giuliani, eventually loses the race because of Republican voters' displeasure with his pro-choice views.

While most Americans say the abortion issue will factor into their vote, relatively few are single-issue voters on the issue. Just 16% tell Gallup in the latest poll that they will only vote for candidates for major offices who share their views on abortion. About 6 in 10 say a candidate's position on abortion is just one of many important factors they consider, while 23% do not see abortion as a major issue when voting.

The picture is not all that much different when looking just at Republicans (including independents who lean Republican). Fewer than one in five Republicans (17%) say a candidate must share their views on abortion. This is only slightly greater than the percentage of Democrats who feel the same way (14%).

Americans who identify themselves as pro-life are a bit more likely than those who are pro-choice to identify abortion as a make-or-break issue for them when voting (19% vs. 12%). However, this difference is not large.

A somewhat greater distinction between pro-life and pro-choice adherents is seen among Republicans. Nearly a quarter of pro-life Republicans (22%) identify abortion as a critical voting issue for them, compared with only 8% of pro-choice Republicans. This suggests some intensity among pro-life voters within the Republican Party, at least on a relative basis, which could harm Giuliani during the primaries if it manifests itself in terms of voter turnout.

No similar distinction between pro-choice and pro-life adherents is seen among Democrats. Similar percentages of these Democratic groups (14% and 15%) say a candidate must share their views on abortion.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,003 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 10-13, 2007. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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