The “mainstream” on abortion isn’t what the Democrats and the media say it is
June 24, 2022
By Dr. Steven J. Allen
WASHINGTON, DC – If you’re in the majority but think you’re in the minority, you act as if you’re in the minority. That’s the point of the lies about what people think about legal abortion.
It is true that, in polls, most people say they oppose overturning Roe v. Wade – but at the same time, the vast majority support restrictions on abortion that are prohibited under Roe. How can that be?
One reason is that few Americans actually know what’s in Roe. (Indeed, as a lawyer I can say confidently that most lawyers don’t know what’s in Roe.) Pollsters have told me that between 25 and 30 percent of people can give reasonably accurate descriptions of what the Supreme Court said in Roe. That means that asking most people whether Roe should be overturned is like asking them if neutrinos have mass. It’s not that people are stupid; it’s that Roe is outside most people’s areas of expertise.
For almost half a century, people have been told by the news media that overturning Roe would make all abortion illegal, even in extreme cases such as when the mother’s health is in danger. Without Roe, people have been told, America would be a hellscape in which women were breeders of babies for theocrats, as in the TV show ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’
When pollsters ask if and when abortion should be legal, they get responses that are inconsistent with Roe. A fifth of Americans or fewer support abortion on demand in the third trimester. A fifth or fewer take the extreme position of opposing all Roe-prohibited restrictions.
What do reputable polls say about people’s attitudes on the legality of abortion?
First, one should note that poll questions are often worded in ways that point to a desired result, whether deliberately or due to bad question-writing. Abortion is sometimes described as a part of “reproductive health.” Respondents are asked not if they want to see Roe overturned, but if they want to see Roe “completely” overturned, with the word “completely” suggesting an action that is extreme. They’re asked if they oppose abortion as a decision made “by a woman and her doctor,” implying that the abortions in question are medically necessary.
Another misleading aspect of polling on abortion has to do with how people label themselves. In recent years, Americans have split roughly evenly between those who call themselves “pro-choice” and those who call themselves “pro-life.” Interestingly, people are more likely to pick the “pro-life” option if they are first asked questions about various circumstances under which abortion might be allowed, or about various proposed restrictions on abortion. The difference is about five points.
Why? Most likely, I believe, because the questions on specific matters remind people of the stakes involved in picking “choice” or “life,” and because the “pro-choice” category has been heavily promoted by the media as preferable, so that people are more likely to pick it in a knee-jerk fashion. The more people think about the issue, the more likely they are to pick “pro-life.” (Survey results are often tempered by the order in which questions are asked, which is why it’s considered unethical, regarding any publicly released poll results, to refuse to post all the questions and the order in which those questions are asked.)
Believe it or not, many people put themselves in both categories, “pro-choice” and “pro-life”! In that 2011 poll, in which people could pick both labels or neither, “pro-choice” got 70 percent (with 38 percent saying the term described them very well and 32 percent saying it described them somewhat); “pro-life” got 66 percent (with 35 percent saying the term described them very well and 31 percent saying it described them somewhat). The overlap included 43 percent of respondents. Freedom of choice and protection of innocent life are both core values to most Americans. People tend to be uncomfortable with the abortion issue in part because the laws of nature force them to select between those core values. Interestingly, a 2015 poll found that 27 percent of people calling themselves “pro-choice” wanted abortion legal in only a few circumstances, or in none.
That ambivalent attitude is apparent in recent polling by the Pew Research Center, in which 25 percent supported the legality of abortion in all circumstances – but nine of the 25 admitted under further questioning that there were exceptions to “all circumstances.” That left just 19 percent consistently pro-“abortion rights.” In that poll, 44 percent generally supported legal abortion at six weeks, 34 percent at 14 weeks, and 22 percent at 24 weeks. Interestingly, only 42 percent of liberal Democrats supported abortion being legal without exception.
People usually try to take a middle path on the issue, one that the law of Roe often doesn’t allow. The Gallup organization frequently asks: “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?” “Legal under any circumstances” got 32 percent in the most recent measurement. When respondents in that poll who said “certain circumstances” were pushed to choose whether they meant most circumstances or a few, the result was that 45 percent picked all or most, and 52 percent picked none or only a few circumstances.
When asked by Gallup most recently (2018) if abortion should be legal in the first three months “when the woman does not want the child for any reason,” the answer was no, 53 percent to 45 percent. For the last three months, the answer was no, 77 percent to 20 percent.
That’s right: 20 percent.
Asked about “a specific abortion procedure conducted in the last six months of pregnancy known as a ‘partial birth abortion,’” respondents said it should be illegal by 64 to 31. Presumably, opposition would have been stronger but for the weaselly wording of the question that avoided describing the gruesome practice, which is abortion during birth (once described by a liberal Democratic Senator from New York as “infanticide”).
Requiring that women be shown an ultrasound picture of the child got majority support, as did requirements for spousal notification, and discussion of alternatives to abortion.
Gallup in 2014 measured respondents’ intensity on the issue, finding that more pro-life voters (24 percent) than pro-choice voters (16 percent) said they would vote only for candidates who shared their views.
By the way, polling on the abortion issue has shown over decades that men and women have roughly the same views on abortion. That shouldn’t be surprising, given that the vast majority of pro-life activists are female.
Even though only a small number of people support their extreme position, Democrats think they have a winning issue. Forty-nine of 50 Democrats in the U.S. Senate voted May 12 for a measure that they claimed would protect abortion rights. The legislation would have stripped states of any authority at all over abortion, including with regard to waiting periods, counseling or informed consent and, for minors, parental notification; restrictions on abortion in the third trimester and during birth(!); and bans on taxpayer-funded abortion.
Before the vote, Democrats had to remove references in the legislation to abortion as “a tool of gender oppression” and to protecting the abortion rights of “every person capable of becoming pregnant” rather than, say, women. (It is a tenet of the Democratic Party that men can give birth. Yes, really.)
Democrats believe that the party’s positions on this issue, including positions supported by a fraction of poll respondents, will help them avert the expected disaster in the November elections. Certainly, the media will frame the issue as Democrats standing up for the rights of women and other pregnant persons vs. Republicans trying to subjugate those people. But there’s evidence from history that the strategy of Democrats and the media may not work.
Consider: It wasn’t until roughly 1980 that the two major parties lined up mostly on opposite sides of the abortion issue. Previously, there were many “pro-choice” Republicans and many “pro-life” Democrats. The author of the majority opinion in Roe had been appointed by a Republican, and was joined by four Republican and two Democratic appointees.
The dissenters were a Republican appointee and a Democrat appointee. Ronald Reagan, when he was governor of California and not yet a pro-lifer, signed the most pro-abortion law in the country. Democratic luminaries such as Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and Bill Clinton once took the pro-life position. In 1988, the number who supported abortion under any circumstances was 23 percent for Democrats and Republicans alike, but in 2009, it was 31 percent for Democrats and 12 percent for Republicans.
If the realignment of the parties on this issue had any effect, it seems to have been in favor of the Republicans. One analysis of the shift in the House of Representatives indicated that Republicans after the realignment lost five House seats to Democrats over the issue, while Democrats lost 105 seats to Republicans for a net GOP gain of 100.
Support for abortion appears to have peaked in the early 1990s, with a net shift of about 15 points from one side or the other since then. Analysts link the decline since then to technological changes, particularly the ubiquity of ultrasound and of parents’ seeing images of their unborn children. A 1987 article in the journal Feminist Studies described ultrasounds as fetishistic images that “blur the boundary between fetus and baby.”
A key part of Democrats’ strategy is to create the false impression that most Americans favor abortion on demand for any reason at any point in pregnancy. The flip side is to create the false impression that people around the world share that view, with the United States as a backward outlier.
That impression, generally held, is why liberal comedian/commentator Bill Maher expressed surprised when he learned the truth about abortion in Europe. On his HBO show, he revealed that “I learned things this week, because [the Supreme Court leak] put it on the front page, it was pretty basic things that I didn’t know about abortion. Like in Europe, the modern countries of Europe, much more restrictive than us or what they even offer. If you are pro-choice, you would like it much less in Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and Switzerland.”
Left-wingers, despite their claim not to be racist, frequently promote the idea that Europeans, but not the people of other regions, are role models on social issues. So they ignore the fact that, in most of role-model Europe, abortion is more restricted than in the United States – more restricted than it would probably be in most of the U.S. even if Roe were overturned.
Recently, both U.S. News and NBC News published maps seeming to show that most European countries allow abortions “on request,” but those maps obfuscated the fact that, in most of Europe, abortions-on-request are limited to the first 10-16 weeks, typically 12 weeks, often with compulsory counseling, mandatory waiting periods, and other requirements. And in about nine percent of Europe, abortion is prohibited or allowed only in rare cases.
Of all the world’s countries, about 37 percent allow abortion on demand (and another nine percent allow it for social and economic reasons), but almost all of those countries limit the timeframe, typically to the first 12 weeks. The other countries prohibit it or allow it only to save the mother’s life or physical health. The U.S. is an outlier in that it has fewer restrictions on abortion than most countries, especially democracies.
It’s time to turn the issue over to the democratic process. It’s time to recognize that those who criticized the reasoning in Roe v. Wade, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Joe Biden, were right. And it’s time for law in the U.S to move closer to the mainstream view among grassroots Americans and the people of the world.
Dr. Steven J. Allen (JD, PhD) is vice chair of conservatives’ national grassroots network, The Conservative Caucus. Contact us for permission to reprint.