Earlier this week, Ross Douthat's latest column and a new Pew survey garnered attention for claiming that more Americans than ever support legal restrictions on abortion. This morning, Gallup released a poll with the cat-nip headline, "More Americans 'Pro-Life' than 'Pro-Choice' for First Time." You will be hearing about this. According to Gallup, one year ago, 50 percent of Americans considered themselves "pro-choice" and 44 percent "pro-life." But this year, Gallup's numbers have flipped, with 51 percent of Americans identifying as "pro-life" and 42 percent as "pro-choice."
Yesterday, Nate Silver did an admirable job of culling survey results on abortion over the last decade, showing that these latest number are, quite likely, outliers. What's more, while it's true that Generation Y is less firmly pro-choice than Gen X or the Baby Boomers, we are more pro-choice than our grandparents in the 65+ crowd. That is politically significant, because those oldest voters are the ones we are gradually replacing in the electorate. That means the United States is likely to remain a moderately pro-choice nation well into the future.
So what could account for the recent Pew and Gallup polls showing a significant change since last year in people's self-identification on "choice"? Explanations are speculative, especially since abortion has not been much in the news; concern about the economy, torture, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been far bigger stories. Silver suggests the Palin family may have affected some voters, but I'm skeptical. Let's face it, Trig is pretty cute, but his parents are adults. Meanwhile, a lot of Americans wondered, out loud, whether 17-year-old Bristol Palin even considered an abortion. I don't think there are very many people who see the Palins as role-models.
A more likely explanation is that endless coverage of rare, late-term abortion -- combined with complacency due to abortion's long-term legality -- has made many Americans "squishy" on the issue, open to various restrictions while still supportive of general access to the procedure. In addition, Barack Obama hasn't gone out of his way to identify as "pro-choice" on the national stage, so the term may signal, to many young voters, a sort of old-fashioned, 1970s attitude. But in general, I think we should be wary of reading too much into two polls. Longer-term trend lines confirm that we are living in a country divided on abortion but with a clear preference for choice in most circumstances.