Opinion Columns & Blogs

May 27, 2012

Opinions changing on gays, not abortion

According to the latest Gallup polls, public opinion on issues of sexual and reproductive freedom has become steadily more liberal.

According to the latest Gallup polls, public opinion on issues of sexual and reproductive freedom has become steadily more liberal.

In 1977, Americans were evenly split on whether gay sex should be legal. Now they support its legality by a 2-1 majority. In 1996, the country opposed same-sex marriage by 68 to 27 percent. Now it’s a dead heat.

Birth control, as an issue of private morality, is a nonissue: 89 percent of Americans say it’s OK.

On issue after issue, the polls have moved to the left. But not on abortion. In 1995, Gallup found that 56 percent of Americans identified themselves as “pro-choice,” while 33 percent identified themselves as “pro-life.” That gap closed within three years, zigzagged a bit, and by last year stood at 49 to 45 percent, a narrow pro-choice plurality. In this month’s poll, however, 50 percent of respondents called themselves pro-life. Only 41 percent called themselves pro-choice.

Advocates of abortion rights point out that calling yourself pro-life doesn’t mean you support every restriction. The “vast majority of Americans continues to support legal abortion in all or certain circumstances,” observed NARAL Pro-Choice America. NARAL cited data from the Pew Research Center showing that most Americans still think abortion should be legal in most cases.

Yet at best, support for abortion is barely holding its ground, way below support for contraception, while approval of gay sex and gay marriage are soaring.

Pro-choice groups see abortion as an issue of women’s rights, reproductive freedom and respecting privacy. But long-term data from the General Social Survey, a multi-decade project of the National Opinion Research Center, show that over the past 40 years, public opinion has shifted in the pro-choice direction on all three of those themes. And yet it hasn’t shifted on abortion.

For example, the percentage of respondents who approved of a married woman earning money even if her husband could support her increased by 15 points. The percentage who said it was OK for a wife to refuse to have children even if her husband wanted them also increased by 15 points. Eighty-two percent of respondents took that position, affirming a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions.

But the abortion numbers barely changed.

Polls don’t settle what’s right and wrong. But they do challenge our assumptions about the structure of beliefs.

When public opinion turns toward gay marriage without abandoning fidelity and family formation, it calls into question our fear that extending marriage to same-sex couples threatens the institution.

And when public opinion turns toward reproductive freedom and equal rights for women but continues to oppose abortion, it punctures our dismissal of pro-life sentiment as a vestige of right-wing sexism.

Spin and sound bites won’t make the evidence go away.

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