Dark Times, Sleeping Giants, Women in Peril: Favorite Tales from Abortion Mythology

One informal measure of pro-life success is the level of hysteria and hyperbole in the abortion lobby's fundraising letters. A recent plea from NARAL Pro-Choice America ("NARAL") begins: "It's a dark time for women's rights." NARAL explains the need for emergency contributions to fight the proposed ban on partial-birth abortion — called the "latest blow in Bush's war on women" — and to "awaken the sleeping giant that is pro-choice America."

Sleeping giant? If "pro-choice America" means people who support the current law — any abortion method, at any time, for any reason — it represents barely 23% of the public (Gallup analysis, June 2003). An additional 15% of the public would place greater restrictions on abortions, while keeping most legal.

Gallup's study of abortion attitudes reveals that a large and steadily growing majority of Americans are opposed to virtually all the abortions permitted under Roe v. Wade. Almost 1 in 5 Americans want abortion illegal in all circumstances (19%), and another 42% would forbid abortion except in the narrowest circumstances — typically where the mother's life is endangered or in cases of rape or incest, amounting to less than 3% of abortions each year. Taken together, 61% of the public opposes all but a small fraction of the abortions that are done today. By a margin of 61 to 38, Americans — if they had the political power to do so — would outlaw over 97% of abortions. Regrettably, the Court in Roe took that power from the states and from the American people, substituting the personal policy wishes of a few judges for the laws enacted by 50 state legislatures.

Why then are we constantly told that "most Americans are pro-choice"?

There are two main reasons: first, the common pro-choice/pro-life dichotomy is a very flawed barometer of opinion on the legality of abortion; and second, polling questions are often skewed, intentionally or not, to elicit a greater "pro-choice" response.

Polls rarely, if ever, define the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life." They allow respondents to identify themselves as belonging to one or the other category. People who are opposed to almost all abortions, but who would allow a woman to abort in the case of endangerment to her life or rape, for example, may call themselves "pro-choice" because they would allow some abortion. Also, the hostility of the mainstream press and abortion advocates to the pro-life movement, and the violent tactics of a handful of abortion opponents, have stigmatized the pro-life movement in the eyes of many people. Therefore, many who would like to see an end to abortion nevertheless shy away from the pro-life label.

There is solid evidence of support for greater restrictions on abortion among those who call themselves "pro-choice". Gallup's 2002 "In-Depth Review" of public opinion about abortion tested opinions on the legality of abortion among those who identified themselves as pro-choice or pro-life. Note that since 1998, Americans have selected between the two labels at almost equal rates. In August 2001, 46% chose each position, but the pro-choice label was slightly favored before and since. Within each camp, however, there are huge differences on the issue of legality.

Views on legality among those who say they're "pro-life" (2002) Never legal - 31%

Legal in only a few cases - 59%

Legal in most cases - 5%

Legal in all cases - 4%

Views on legality among those who say they're "pro-choice" (2002)

Never legal - 3%

Legal in only a few cases - 27%

Legal in most cases - 19%

Legal in all cases - 50%

So 30% of self-identified "pro-choice" people would ban all or almost all abortions; only 9% of self-identified "pro-life" people would oddly permit abortion in most or all cases. The latest Gallup poll (May 2003) shows 48% of Americans identifying themselves as pro-choice and 45% as pro-life. Let's readjust the columns to reflect their attitudes on the legality of abortion.

If the 30% of "pro-choice" respondents who oppose all/almost all abortions are shifted to the pro-life side (.30 x 48% =14% of total respondents), and the 9% of pro-lifers who favor keeping all/almost all abortions legal are shifted to the pro-choice column (.09 x 45% = 4% of total respondents), a truer picture emerges:

Pro-life 45% (-4% + 14%) = 55%

Pro-choice 48% (-14% + 4%) = 38%.

That's a 17-point pro-life advantage in 2002 in favor of making almost all abortions illegal.