In recent years, when prognosticators talk about the shifts in views on social issues, they regularly include the addendum “except for abortion”. The reason, as a good deal of crowing on the part of pro-lifers indicates, is a plethora of polling that shows rising numbers of Americans over the past few years who declare themselves pro-life. Even as they have lost the culture wars in so many other areas, many social conservatives feel they’re winning the argument on abortion. They have some justification for thinking this – restrictions at the state level have withstood legal challenge, the Millennial generation is more pro-life than the Xers, and we’ve seen significant shifts in favor of 20 week bans on abortion (perhaps thanks to the advances in ultrasound technology). The left has become increasingly frustrated by state regulations on abortion clinics, and unhappy with the ever-present over the counter availability of morning after pills, has been frustrated by the Supreme Court in their attempts to dragoon every company into paying for said pills. In 2012, self-identified pro-choice Americans clocked in at a mere 41% compared to 50% who called themselves pro-life. For social conservatives looking for a silver lining in their apocalyptic vision for America’s future, abortion politics has been their hope.
I have myself written optimistically about some of these trends in the past. However, as readers of my daily newsletter The Transom know, in recent years I’ve become far more pessimistic about this pro-life trend. Today’s polling numbers from Gallup which indicates the total opposite of their 2012 finding – that 50% of Americans choose the pro-choice label over 44% who choose pro-life – is one more indication that this “trend” is largely a myth, perpetuated by meaningless and ill-defined labels.
The nagging problem with more optimistic measures is that it is an assessment based on “self-identification.” The trend lines here shift dramatically depending on which pollster you use and the context of the issue. It’s absolutely meaningless to identify a portion of the population as “pro-life” if those same Americans consistently say they oppose the reversal of Roe – which would not even ban abortion, but instead kick the issue back to the states. Eight percent of respondents to the Gallup poll are either self-identified “pro-choice” who think abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, or self-identified “pro-life” who think abortion should be legal in all circumstances. I suspect the self-identification problem disguises the fact that most people would rather avoid the topic entirely… and therefore, declare their comfort with the status quo.
It’s clear that the majority of Americans are pro-life if you consider the definition of that term to be “they want there to be fewer abortions”. But the important question is not whether you think abortion is a bad thing, it’s what you support as a political and policy matter to achieve change. Compare the ludicrousness of the abortion questions to another hot button issue – say, gun violence. Are you pro-gun violence or anti-gun violence? Well, of course people will say they are opposed to gun violence. But that doesn’t say anything about whether you are in favor of restricting access to guns, requiring waiting periods and additional government intrusion into gun sales, banning certain guns and ammunition, and so on. Just as the left often confuses American revulsion at gun violence for support for gun-grabbing steps, I suspect the right confuses personal pro-life sentiments for indications of support for pro-life policies.
To be fair to the optimistic social conservatives, it does appear pro-lifers are poised for some significant policy gains on the issue of late-term abortions if the Republican Party is willing to stand up on the matter. The 20 week bans increasingly pushed by Republican politicians deal with only a small subset of abortions (about 1% of them) which take place close to the point of viability and at a juncture where most Americans are uncomfortable with the death of a fetus that looks more like an infant and less like a clump of cells.
The pro-abortion legal effort has largely held back from challenging these 20 week bans, out of concern that the current Supreme Court would uphold the laws or perhaps go further. They are also likely waiting for the installation of a national 20 week ban under a Republican president, which could prove more susceptible to challenge (though I believe it to be justified under the 14th Amendment – it’s always amusing to me to argue with those who take an expansive view of the 14th on gay marriage but a narrow view on abortion, but YMMV).
The effort to achieve these 20 week bans is important and worthwhile, and not just because it infuriates Wendy Davis. While the number of abortions prevented will likely be small, these steps are as much about reminding people that the womb contains a distinct human life as anything. But it also strikes me as setting the country on the path not toward a massive and necessary reconsideration of the abortion issue, but toward a result that will not leave most pro-lifers satisfied. A 20 week ban would still put the United States in stark contrast to most of Europe (Portugal bans abortion at 10 weeks; France, Germany, and Spain at 14 weeks; Italy at effectively the end of the first trimester). We could be headed toward a reality where 99% of abortions in the U.S. remain on-demand; where abortifacients are funded by taxpayers for virtually everyone; where abortions are funded via Medicaid in many states; and where the only real restrictions backed by the courts are on government’s ability to compel religious employers to pay for IUDs and morning after pills. Which, let’s face it, isn’t anywhere close to what pro-lifers mean when they call themselves pro-life.