Pity the pandering U.S. candidate

June 9, 2011

Politicians pandering for votes on conservative family values issues may want to think again.

A survey of 3,000 Americans by the Public Religion Research Institute found 42 percent said the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” both described them well, illustrating the complexity of the abortion issue in the minds of many.

“The terms ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ does not reflect the complexity of Americans’ views on abortion,” said Robert Jones, head of the institute.

Seven in 10 Americans say the term pro-choice describes them somewhat or very well, and nearly two-thirds say the term pro-life correctly describes them.

The survey also noted a “de-coupling” of views on the legality of abortion and of same-sex relationships among those born after 1980.

“Millennials (people aged 18 to 29 who came of age at the turn of the millennium) look about like their parents do on the legal right to an abortion. But on the issue of same-sex marriage they look significantly more supportive,” Jones said.

Overall, 56 percent of Americans support the legality of abortion — roughly the same level of support as in the past decade.

In contrast, the percentage of Americans who said marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by law as valid has grown 18 points since 1999, to 53 percent this year, Jones said.

“Millennials are much more likely to know someone, or have a family member, who is gay or lesbian. They are no more likely than their parents to know someone who have had an abortion,” which remains a private, taboo topic, he said. Knowing someone in the situation can shift attitudes, he said.

He said he thinks the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage will move on increasingly separate tracks as Millennials take the reins in society.

For candidates who have long twinned the two topics, the survey findings might lead them to reconsider and adopt more moderate stances, or avoid the subjects altogether, Jones said.

For Americans in general, the survey found only three in 10 believe abortion is a critical issue. But among those opposed to abortion in all cases, two-thirds think it is critically important.

“This is still an important issue, particularly among religious conservatives. But how does that translate in a general election?” Jones asked.

The survey found 70 percent of evangelical Protestants — who make up roughly one-quarter of Americans but are a key constituency in the Republican state-by-state presidential nomination battle — believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Roman Catholics tend to be more in line with the general public, with more than half supportive of the legality of abortion even though the Vatican opposes it.

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