Support for abortion rights declines in America

October 1, 2009

Public support for abortion rights is ebbing in America while the issue’s importance has fallen on the public agenda, especially for liberal Democrats, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

In 2007 and 2008, Pew found that supporters of abortion rights outnumbered those saying it should be illegal in most or all cases by a 54 percent to 40 percent margin.

By contrast, in two major surveys conducted in 2009 among a total sample of more than 5,500 adults, views of abortion are about evenly divided, with 47 percent expressing support for legal abortion and 44 percent expressing opposition,” Pew said.


You can see our full story here and the Pew report here.

What I want to ask readers in this blog is what they think all of this means, especially in light of President Barack Obama’s agenda and other polls which show similar trends.

(PHOTO: Anti-abortion protestor holds sign in front of US Capitol during March for Life in Washington, January 22, 2009/Jonathan Ernst)

In May, we blogged on a Gallup poll that showed “pro-life” Americans (who oppose abortion rights) outnumbering “pro-choice” Americans (who support them) for the first time since the organization began asking that question in 1995. It found 51 percent of Americans referring to themselves as “pro-life” on the issue of abortion versus 42 percent who described themselves as “pro-choice.”

One of the most striking things about the Pew poll is the sharp drop in the percentage of liberal Democrats who regard abortion as a “critical issue” facing the country — to eight percent in August from 34 percent in March 2006. This could suggest that liberal Democrats, focused on the economy and other issues, are far less concerned about the status of abortion rights than they were when George W. Bush was president and the anti-abortion rights Republican Party controlled Congress.

Overall, the percentage of American adults who see it as a critical issue has declined over the same period to 15 percent from 28 percent — in part, no doubt, because of the sour economy and financial crisis.  Even among conservative Republicans, this number has fallen to 26 percent from 35 percent.


But conservative Republicans are less compromising on the issue — 44 percent now say the country needs to find a middle ground on abortion, compared with 56 percent in 2006.  This may be explained in part by conservative Christian activists and talk radio, who have assailed Obama’s support for abortion rights since his first day in office.

(PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama address at the commencement ceremonies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, May 17, 2009, angered some conservative Catholics opposed to abortion rights/John Gress)

Among other things, they accuse Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress of harboring a secret agenda to expand abortion by concealing provisions that would free federal funds for the procedure in the healthcare bills working their way through congress — an allegation denied by the president and his supporters.

Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants — a key Republican base — remain the staunchest opponents of abortion rights, with 64 percent saying they favor making abortion more difficult. Among U.S. Catholics only 44 percent held this view with 47 percent opposed to it. Many conservative Catholics are staunch — and almost single-minded in some cases — in their opposition to abortion rights but the flock is hardly united on the issue.

Where there does seem to be room for middle ground on this highly-charged issue is on the need to reduce the number of abortions in America, which is a goal Obama has endorsed.   Sixty-five percent of Americans think it would be good to reduce the number of abortions compared to 59 percent in 2005.

It all raises a number of interesting questions. A few months ago I interviewed Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He said at the time (this was a few weeks after the Gallup poll mentioned above) that the “pro-life movement was winning the hearts and minds of America.”

Do you think this is true? Or is much of the swelling opposition to abortion rights at the moment related to wider conservative views about Obama and so perhaps near its peak? And could it begin to rebound as a priority issue with the wider public if recession ends?

It is also worth asking if liberal Democrats will become more engaged on the issue if, say, they are worried about losing the White House in 2012, and with it a president who would fill vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court with justices supportive of abortion rights. For many on both sides, the Supreme Court is the big prize that is won through the White House. Would the prospect of “President Sarah Palin” galvanise both party’s bases on the issue?


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I suspicious of Mr. Stoddard, who seems to attend and report pretty much on conservative issues while attending all kinds of conservative meeting and conventions. And Reuters, who is owned by the English Reuters group, which is been shown to have a conservative bias is the vehicle to which Mr. Stoddard finds ample “journalism” time to research and report. And I hate to say it, but now I’m suspicious of the Pew Research Center, whose good work in the past seems to be subtly bending towards it’s family roots (Pew organizations were funded by the conservative family members of the Sun Oil Corp.). Sorry, I just don’t buy this as respectable journalism. My sh*t detector is pining hard! (see le=SourceWatch for more information)

Posted by ER Mitchell | Report as abusive

ER Mitchell, your sh*t detector should actually be called a reporter’s specialisation detector. Ed Stoddard writes about conservative issues and attends conservative meetings because his beat is the religious right. It’s his job to write about these issues. And when that assignment is up and he goes on to another posting and maybe another country, someone else will cover these issues. According to your logic, a journalist who writes a lot about one group, attends its meetings and reads its publications must agree with it. In my career at Reuters, I’ve written about communists and conservatives, singers and scientists, Muslims, Buddhists, New Agers and neo-Nazis — without ever being any of them.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Curiously, Obama’s “common ground” message seems to have resonated with pro-choice liberals.While many pro-choice folks would prefer to let the individual decide whether to have an abortion, they are open to more restrictive attitudes to abortion provided the society is willing to take care of the children of unwanted pregnancies.A poor woman who is forced to bear a child should be given assistance in raising the child through college. That should include food, clothing, child care and education.That is the least that society can do for her is they are going to insist that she bear a child she cannot afford.

Posted by Norris Hall | Report as abusive

I believe it is presumptuous to assume that support from the majority of Americans is declining. It is always the loudest people who are heard and it always seems to be the pro-lifers who talk the loudest. A lot of Americans have feelings this issue and choose not to attend rallies and harass women as they leave clinics because they are living their lives comfortable with the law that supports a woman’s right to choose. A lot of women who themselves receive abortion services do not openly speak out about their experiences because they will be criticized by the people who are against abortions, even though they are legal.And while abortions are obviously a hot topic, they are not as important an issue as education- which done correctly could lower the amount of abortions sought by teens who are ill-advised on what they should be doing to prevent pregnancies in the first place.

Posted by Elizabeth Smith | Report as abusive

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