Is Public Support for Abortion Access Slipping, Or Is Apathy Rising?

A new poll released today by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press bears the headline: "Support for Abortion Slips." No doubt conservatives, and more specifically the religious right, will jump on this survey and deploy it to support their position on everything from health care reform to "personhood" ballot initiatives. But it's hardly cause for for supporters of reproductive health and of science-based public policy to roll over. In fact, there's reason in the survey to redouble efforts to garner support for reproductive rights.

The results, part of Pew's 2009 Annual Religion and Public Life Survey, do show a drop in support for legal abortion in 2009. Whether it's significant in the long term, consistent with other polling, or more than an outlier remains to be seen. I'll leave that analysis to the number crunchers, and will report on that, too, but for now it's important to focus on the political implications. In short, Pew found an increase in opposition to legal abortion, and a decline in support for it. But Pew documented that shift in just a one-year period, from August 2008 to August 2009. Elsewhere in the survey results, notably, changes over a longer term provide less persuasive evidence that we're seeing a seismic shift in attitudes.

For example, Pew mapped attitudes about making abortion more difficult to obtain from 1985 to the present. In 1985, 47 percent of respondents favored making abortion more difficult to obtain; 49 percent opposed. Today, those numbers are 41 percent in favor, and 50 percent opposed. While in the intervening period opposition to abortion restrictions reached a high point in 1992 (62 percent), and attitudes have fluctuated over that period, opposition to abortion restrictions is about the same now as it was in 1985 and support for abortion restrictions is actually lower now than it was in 1985. In other words, fewer people are in favor of restricting abortion access now than they were in 1985; opposition to abortion restrictions remains about the same.

Elsewhere in the survey results, Pew finds that more frequent churchgoers are more conservative and more entrenched in their opposition to legal abortion. (They are also, Democrats should take note, the least open to "compromises" or "abortion reduction" strategies.) And religious people who support abortion rights are far less likely than religious abortion opponents to root their position on abortion in their religious beliefs; instead, they base their position largely on personal experience and education. Among opponents of legal abortion, 53 percent base the position on religious beliefs; only 11 percent of abortion rights supporters base their position on religion. Of course, that doesn't mean that abortion rights supporters aren't religious; they just don't find their support for abortion rights in the Bible. And it certainly doesn't mean that the religious positions of certain people should dictate law and public policy.

A warning for progressives after the jump.

--Sarah Posner

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