Did America just undergo a massive pro-life lurch? Reporters should interpret polls carefully

Axios, always atop breaking news trends, posted a bold headline Feb. 24 that announced “New Poll Finds ‘Dramatic Shift’ on Abortion Attitudes.”

The February poll showed Americans are evenly split between those identifying as “pro-choice” and as “pro-life,” tied at 47 percent, while only a month before the same pollster reported pro-choicers outnumbered pro-lifers, 55 percent to 38 percent.  

The Axios article recycled a press release from the polls’ sponsor, the Knights of Columbus, that proclaimed "in just one month Americans have made a sudden and dramatic shift away from the prochoice position and toward a pro-life stance.” See January release here and February release here.

Abortion attitudes remain as politically and religiously potent today as they’ve been the past 46 years, so reporters are ever alert to trends. But should the media be reporting that thinking across the fruited plain lurched from a big gap to a tie between Jan. 8-10 and Feb. 12-17, the survey dates? 

What are the odds? Democrats’ recent advocacy for unpopular late-term abortions alongside intimations of infanticide might be driving a modest pro-life uptick, but 17 points? 

With polls, journalists always need to be careful and assess the full context. The Religion Guy’s hunch here is that the fat abortion-rights majority in January was an outlier, and the February tie is pretty much representative of American thinking.  Why? See below. 

Preliminaries: The Knights, who paid for both the January and February polls, are ardently pro-life Catholics. However, they hired the well-regarded Marist Poll to run the survey and crunch the numbers. Despite its Catholic name and origin, sponsoring Marist College is officially non-sectarian. Technical note: the Knights did not reveal the polls’ response rates, an all-important factor. 

The Religion Guy maintains that February’s 47-47 tie is interesting but not the big news as trumpeted.

Enter the Gallup Poll, journalists’ invaluable gold standard for asking consistent religious and moral questions across many years. 

Gallup’s comprehensive compilation on abortion attitudes shows this version of the Marist question, asked 32 times since 1995: “Would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?” The result last May was an exact tie, 48 percent to 48 percent, precisely replicated nine months later by Marist.

Long term, Gallup first posed that question twice before the re-election of Bill “safe legal and rare” Clinton when Republicans controlled  both houses of Congress. Back then, pro-choicers" were ahead 56-33 and then 53-36. But pro-choice sentiment declined, and results during the George Bush 43, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump years have bounced around more or less even splits. (See Gallup’s list linked above for those numbers). 

Gallup also provides significant evidence that, as with other hot issues like immigration, the American people are deeply divided over abortion, but prefer to hug the center while politicos and parties veer more sharply left or right. Look at telltale results on the following asked from 1975 through 2018: “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?” In other words, hard left, vs. the  middle, vs. the hard right. 

The middle position has won support from 50 percent or more of respondents 58 out of 60 (!) times Gallup asked this. The exceptions were plurality support from 48 percent in 1992 and 49 percent in 1991. Those same years were the only times the hard left view --  effectively the policy of the Supreme Court’s Roe ruling of 1973 and of the Democratic Party since -- was favored by even a third of the public. The hard right view,  total illegality, always takes third place, in the high teens to low 20s. The 2018 result was 29 percent all legal, 50 percent in the middle, and 18 percent all illegal.

Gallup also provides the news media detailed surveys about abortion at different points in pregnancy. Since 1996, solid majorities have always said abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy. But even larger majorities want it outlawed  in the second three months. With “late term” and “partial birth” emerging as issues for 2020, it's significant that a lopsided 80 per cent or more of Americans consistently want abortion outlawed during pregnancy’s last three months.

Yet majorities always tell Gallup the Supreme Court should not overturn the  Roe ruling and let each state decide on abortion policy. Go figure.

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