The end of "pro-choice" America?

The new Gallup poll on abortion may not represent a sea change in public opinion, but it does highlight the question of just how much "choice" our country will tolerate.

Published May 18, 2009 7:10PM (EDT)

According to a Gallup poll released last week, a majority of Americans (51 percent) consider themselves “pro-life,” the first time that's happened since Gallup began asking the question in 1995. The shift is so substantial -- last year 50 percent called themselves pro-choice and 44 percent pro-life -- that  analysts at have called the poll an outlier. While it's certainly true that one headline-grabbing poll does not a sea change make, the numbers do highlight the vexing question abortion rights advocates face: How much “choice” will the American public tolerate?

Pro-choicers are likely to take comfort in the fact that attitudes toward abortion have been remarkably stable over the years since legalization, and that the Gallup poll shows little change in those attitudes, with a near tie between the ends of the spectrum at 22 percent believing abortion should be illegal in all circumstances and 23 percent for legal in all circumstances, pretty much in line with the 1975 results. But a whopping 53 percent say it should be legal under certain circumstances -- 37 percent believing it should be legal in only a few circumstances and 15 percent favoring legal under most circumstances.

Those statistics were fine in 1975 when legal abortion was two years old and we knew very little about abortion procedures, gestational age, why women had abortions, and there were no 3D ultrasound pictures of fetuses on the refrigerators of expectant parents and proud grandparents. As long as we could stay on the topic of "legal or illegal," abortion rights advocates won hands-down. Staying on-topic, however, was tough when confronted by an avalanche of laws designed by anti-abortion advocates eager to play up the public distrust of women, teens and poor people. It was only three years after "Roe v. Wade" when congressional efforts to deny public funding for abortions for women on Medicaid were successfully introduced in Congress.

Almost any restriction on abortion rights won public approval. Examine Gallup polls from 2003 forward and you’ll find that 36 percent of Americans would favor a law banning all abortions except those to save the life of the woman; 69 percent favor parental consent for adolescents and disturbing 64 percent agree with Justice Alito that a husband should be notified if a married woman seeks an abortion. In 2003, 56 percent of Americans said abortion should be illegal in the first trimester if the woman ”does not want the child for any reason.” The wording is definitely skewed anti-choice but demonstrates that the same public that broadly supports the idea that abortion is a “woman’s decision” especially early in pregnancy can turn against that woman if she is presented as willful or not sufficiently loving of children. On top of that, 78 percent favor a 24-hour waiting period; 88 percent a law that would require doctors to give alternatives to abortion.

Given the longstanding public discomfort with unrestricted choice these statistics demonstrate, it would be risky for abortion rights advocates to dismiss any shift in general self-identification from pro-choice to pro-life. Once upon a time, saying you were “pro-life” in liberal circles was totally de classe. Pro-life was clearly understood to mean anti-abortion. Now, enough pro-lifers are against the death penalty, the war in Iraq, violence against women and “unrestricted “ abortion to make the label attractive. Pro-choice has become the narrower term, too easily dismissed as referring to the single issue of legal abortion.

President Obama’s strategy of shifting the center of public attention from the the minutiae of when and for what reasons abortion should be legal to pregnancy prevention, responsible sexual behavior and support for women who want to continue pregnancies is smart politics. It's what pro-choice really means.

By Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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