Some of you may recall that there was a big brouhaha back in May over a Gallup poll that purported to show a big sudden shift towards the “pro-life” position on abortion. Conservatives made a lot of hay over it, even as lots of us started at the numbers and suggested the poll was almost certainly an outlier.
So now there’s a new Gallup poll out on abortion, and lo and behold, May’s pro-life tilt has disappeared. The purported 51%-42% majority for the pro-life position in May is now down to a statistically insignificant 47%-46% plurality–about where the balance was back in 2001. Moreover, the hard-core pro-life position holding that abortion should be illegal “in all circumstances” is back down to 18%, just two percentage points above the average for 1988-2008.
But Gallup’s analysis of the new poll tries to minimize the outlier status of the May survey by comparing the results of both to much earlier findings:
The average figures for Americans’ preferred abortion label across 18 Gallup surveys conducted from 1995 to 2008 are 49% for the “pro-choice” position and 42% for the “pro-life” position — a seven-point advantage for the “pro-choice” side. Both of Gallup’s 2009 surveys show more Americans identifying as “pro-life” than as “pro-choice” (although the one-point advantage for “pro-life” in the July 2009 survey is not statistically significant.)
So a drop in the pro-life plurality from 9 points to 1 point somehow confirms a shift towards the pro-life position, even though (as can be confirmed by a glance at the chart supplied by Gallup) the numbers have been remarkably steady–except for that May poll–since 1997.
Gallup also tries to establish a pro-life “tilt” by comparing the ratios of those favoring “legal in all circumstances” and “illegal in all circumstances” positions, and concluding that the plurality for “legal” versus “illegal” postures has declined from 12% from 1988-2008 to 3% in the latest survey. The analysis doesn’t note that support for “legal under some circumstances” has remained a largely steady majority from 1975 til now.
In other words, there’s a lot of sophistry going on in this stubborn claim that attitudes on abortion have recently shifted towards the “ban abortion” position. “Pro-choice” and “Pro-life” aren’t defined in any of these Gallup surveys, even though many Americans who support legalized abortion consider themselves “personally opposed,” or “personally” pro-life. The “legal under some cirumstances” position includes people who may favor tiny or even theoretical restrictions on abortion rights, and people who only support small exceptions to an abortion ban in cases of rape, incest, or threats to the life of the woman involved.
As John Sides, Nate Silver and Alan Abramowitz, among others, established during the debate in May, public opinion on abortion has shown a steady majority in favor of the status quo (legalized abortion with some restrictions) for decades. Gallup’s efforts to show otherwise, based on dubious self-identification among ill-defined, confusing categories and sideways squints at the data, haven’t changed the underlying realities.