The Recent "Partial-Birth Abortion" Decision and Views of U.S. Supreme Court

by Lydia Saad

Positive and negative references to the decision balance each other out

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Gallup's May 2007 rating of the United States Supreme Court found public approval of the court down from last fall. At 51%, a majority of Americans still approved of the job the court was doing, but this was on the low side of the range of approval seen over the last several years.

The timing of the poll, one month after the high court upheld a federal law making it illegal to conduct the late- term abortion procedure known as "partial-birth abortion," raised questions about whether this high-profile decision played any role in the court's relatively anemic rating. Although the public broadly opposes late-term abortions and thinks the specific procedure known as partial-birth abortion should be banned, Americans also say they do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. (See "Slim Majority Approves of Supreme Court Following Partial-Birth Ruling" in Related Items.) Critics of the court's decision in Gonzales v. Carhart say that upholding the federal ban on partial-birth abortion is a step in that direction -- and it's possible the public cooled on the court as a result.

In a recent Gallup Panel survey of national adults, Gallup set out to further investigate how much the May 2007 reading of the Supreme Court was affected by public reaction to the Gonzales v. Carhart case. Respondents were first asked to say how strongly they approve or disapprove of the job the U.S. Supreme Court is doing. Those who either approve or disapprove were then asked to explain, in their own words, why they hold that view.

By no means does partial-birth abortion emerge as a dominant issue on the minds of Americans when they think about the Supreme Court today. It is the only issue that is named, specifically, by at least 1% of respondents as a reason for approving or disapproving of the court.

Thumbs Up for the Court

Approval of the court is much higher in the May 21-24, 2007 Gallup Panel survey than was found earlier in the month, but because the question wordings are different, the results are not directly comparable. Giving respondents the option of saying they approve of the court (but not strongly) may allow respondents holding reservations about the court -- and who would otherwise say disapprove -- to choose the "approve not strongly" option.

When given four options for reviewing the court -- strongly approve, approve, disapprove, or strongly disapprove -- a total of 63% of Americans polled in the latest Panel survey approve of job the court is doing; 29% disapprove.

Interestingly, with only 4% strongly approving and 3% strongly disapproving, very few Americans have strong feelings about the court's performance.

The court is generally well-viewed by all types of Americans regardless of gender, age, income, and political orientation. While twice as many Democrats as Republicans disapprove of the job the court is doing; a majority of both groups, as well as of independents, approve.

Why Approve?

Proponents of the Supreme Court name a variety of reasons why they approve of the job it is doing, and mentions of the abortion issue are quite small. Only 7% specifically mention its decision to uphold the ban on partial-birth abortion as a reason they approve. Additionally, 2% mention that the court has not overturned Roe v. Wade.

Of those who approve of the court, the most common reason given for having that view is generally agreeing with the court's decisions or believing the court is making "good" decisions. The second most common reason is not so much a positive endorsement of the court's work, but satisfaction that it has had no major controversies. Upholding the ban on partial-birth abortions ties for third on the list; along with the view that the court has become more balanced and fair, and that the court is abiding by the Constitution.

(Asked of those who say they strongly approve or approve of the job the Supreme Court is doing) What are some of the reasons you approve of the job the Supreme Court is doing?

2007
May 21-24

%

Court is making good decisions/agree with decisions

20

Haven't had any major controversies lately

13

Have become more unbiased/fair/balanced

9

Abiding by the Constitution/laws more closely

7

Ban on partial-birth abortions

7

Things are improving lately

6

Like conservative views

5

Keeping the public in mind/working for the public

3

Haven't overturned Roe v. Wade

2

 

Other

3

No reason in particular (vol.)

18

No opinion

12

(vol.) = Volunteered response

Note: Percentages add to more than 100% due to multiple responses.



Why Disapprove?

Critics of the Supreme Court's job performance also cite a variety of reasons for their views, with the most common being that they disagree with the court's decisions (17%). A number of other factors rate nearly as high, including 13% who mention the court's decision on partial-birth abortion. A similar number (14%) are critical of the court for "not getting anything accomplished" or dragging its feet. Ten percent believe the court is not adhering to the Constitution.

(Asked of those who say they strongly disapprove or disapprove of the job the Supreme Court is doing) What are some of the reasons you disapprove of the job the Supreme Court is doing?

2007
May 21-24

%

Disagree with the Court's decisions/making poor decisions

17

Dragging their feet/slacking/not getting anything accomplished

14

Issues involving partial-birth abortion

13

Court is not adhering to the Constitution/laws

10

Too easily swayed by politics/government

9

Very liberal/biased/unfair

8

Too many unqualified people in Supreme Court

7

Too conservative/biased/unfair

6

Not looking out for/standing up for the common people

6

Not pleased with the job Court is doing

6

 

Other

4

No reason in particular (vol.)

5

No opinion

6

(vol.) = Volunteered response

Note: Percentages add to more than 100% due to multiple responses.

Bottom Line

The Supreme Court's recent ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the 2003 Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act appears to have had little net impact on Americans' views of the high court. As one of the more high-profile decisions made by the court this year, and on an issue that always sparks controversy, it has clearly registered with some Americans. But it is only critical enough to be named as a top reason for approving or disapproving of the Supreme Court to a small segment of Americans.

Overall, 4% of all Americans cite the court's decision in the case as a reason why they approve of the court's job performance. (That's the national equivalent of the 7% of people who cite the partial-birth decision as a major reason why they approve of the court.) Additionally, 4% of Americans cite it as a reason why they disapprove of the court's job performance. (That's equivalent to the 13% of the court's detractors who cite the decision as a reason why they disapprove.)

Some respondents who cite general agreement or disagreement with the court's decisions as reasons for their overall view of the court (20% of those who approve and 17% of those who disapprove) could have the abortion issue in mind. However, evidently the issue is not important enough for them that they mention it specifically.

It is possible that the partial-birth case had greater salience for people a month ago when the decision was fresher in their minds. But at this juncture, it is only a minor factor in ratings of the court, and one where pro and con attitudes are evenly balanced.

Survey Methods

Results for this panel study are based on telephone interviews with 1,007 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 21-24, 2007. Respondents were randomly drawn from Gallup's nationally representative household panel, which was originally recruited through random selection methods. 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.

For results based on the sample of 616 adults who approve of the job the Supreme Court is doing, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 313 adults who disapprove of the job the Supreme Court is doing, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±6 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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