It's not Rand Paul's America anymore: Anti-women zealots, reproductive health access, and America's pro-choice resurgence

For the first time in 7 years, "pro-choice" leads in polls. Is America finally rejecting draconian anti-choicers?

Published May 29, 2015 7:01PM (EDT)

Rand Paul                         (AP/Cheryl Senter)
Rand Paul (AP/Cheryl Senter)

According to a Gallup poll released Friday, half of Americans consider themselves "pro-choice,” marking the first time in seven years that the position has a “statistically significant lead in Americans’ abortion views.” This shift is simultaneously a big deal and also kind of irrelevant.

The poll itself asked Americans to identify their “preferences for the extent to which abortion should be legal,” which is a very different thing than asking whether or not they would tell a person seeking an abortion that they can’t get one. Put those questions to people, and the black and white labels tend to fall away and the deep grays really come out.

But in the Gallup poll, respondents had four real options: that abortion should be legal under “any” circumstances, “most” circumstances, only in “a few” circumstances and “illegal in all circumstances. (The final option was “no opinion.”)

Gallup provided some useful context for what the shift means in terms of surveys from previous years:

The pro-choice view is not as prevalent among Americans as it was in the mid-1990s, but the momentum for the pro-life position that began when Barack Obama took office has yielded to a pro-choice rebound. That rebound has essentially restored views to where they were in 2008; today's views are also similar to those found in 2001.

Some of the variation in public views on abortion over time coincides with political and cultural events that may have helped shape public opinion on the issue, including instances of anti-abortion violence, legislative efforts to ban "partial-birth abortion" or limit abortion funding, and certain Supreme Court cases. While events like these may continue to cause public views on abortion to fluctuate, the broader liberal shift in Americans' ideology of late could mean the recent pro-choice expansion has some staying power.

The big takeaway seems to be that the recent surge in anti-choice policy and high-profile Supreme Court cases on reproductive rights may have led some Americans to throw their lot in with the “pro-choice” label. The anti-abortion movement shows no signs of slowing, so it’s possible that this may be a stable trend.

That's nothing to complain about. It’s good when people take notice that their elected officials have priorities that are entirely out of step with their own and are basically acting like psychopaths about women’s health. But the poll doesn’t offer a lot of insight into how Americans actually feel about access and the more direct question of when they would say “no” to a person seeking abortion care.

Like Sarah Kliff found earlier this year with her in-depth and fascinating survey on abortion views in America, the questions you ask -- and how you ask them -- changes quite a lot.

Kliff polled more than a thousand Americans about how they felt about abortion. Not just about whether or not it should be legal or how it should be regulated, but how they talked about it with friends and family. Taking this kind of approach allowed for a much more complicated portrait of where people stand.

According to the Vox poll, 18 percent of Americans considered themselves pro-choice and pro-life, and 21 percent of people refused to label themselves as either. Add it up and you’ve got nearly 40 percent of Americans who have views that don’t correspond to a box you can check off on a survey.

The Vox poll is also a reminder that many Americans, when asked questions about the issue beyond how they label themselves, understand abortion as an actual decision that real people make in their real lives, rather than a political football that gets kicked around.

Here’s how one of the respondents explained to Kliff why he felt like he was pro-choice and pro-life: "Abortion is killing a baby. But I'm not saying it's always wrong."

"From my point of view, I believe all babies go to heaven," he continued. "And if this baby were to live a life where it would be abused ... it's just really hard to explain. It gets into the rights of the woman, and her body, at the same time. It just sometimes gets really hazy on each side."

The other thing that the poll found: a lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of meddling in other people’s personal and medical lives. They may have their own opinions about abortion, but that doesn’t mean they think their opinions should become the law. "There are my personal beliefs, but you can't blanketly say, 'You can't do that.' I can voice my opinion, but I won't protest," according to one respondent. "I think that's ridiculous."

Another said she disapproved of a friend’s decision to have an abortion admitted that she still understood why she made the choice. "I don’t agree with her decision, because she was being reckless," she explained, "but at the same time I understand it. I’m not accepting, but I don’t condemn her. She couldn’t take care of it."

The other consensus the poll found: people having abortions shouldn’t have to suffer for it. Seventy-three percent of people said the experience should be “supportive” and 74 percent want it to be “nonjudgmental.”

And while bans on abortion at 20 weeks and other restrictions have mixed results in polls, Vox found that when asked direct questions about the kinds of obstacles that people should or shouldn’t face when trying to access care, there was just as much agreement. When asked, 70 percent of people agreed that traveling more than 60 miles for an abortion was too much.

This might feel like throwing around a lot of meaningless numbers, but the data actually points to something significant: as more Americans show themselves to be nuanced and compassionate on the issue, politicians have become increasingly draconian. Legislative priorities just aren't matching up with how people talk about abortion. And while clinics around the country are being closed due to unnecessary regulations, even reliable common ground -- like rape exceptions -- have become targets for increasingly aggressive anti-choice politicians.

The issue isn't going anywhere this election. Each of the declared Republican contenders is anti-choice, many extreme by the already extreme standards.

Here's Rand Paul during a 2013 interview with CNN when he was asked to explain his position on personhood and abortion:

Well, I think that once again puts things in too small of a box. What I would say is that there are thousands of exceptions. You know, I’m a physician and every individual case is going to be different, and everything is going to be particular to that individual case and what’s going on with that mother and the medical circumstances of that mother. [...] I don’t think it’s a simple as checking box and saying exceptions or no exceptions.

Paul sure sounds a lot like one of the respondents to the Vox survey. But his voting record tells another story, one that may eventually catch up with him. The Gallup poll may not tell us much about the nuance of Americans' abortion views, but it does suggest the public may be growing wary of Republicans like Paul and moving the other way.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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