Saturday, April 19, 2014

Opinion on Abortion, 1977-2014

Thomas Edsall had a strange piece in the New York Times recently.  It starts with a good question--why the difference in the trajectories of same-sex marriage as abortion as political issues?  Same-marriage came onto the scene in the mid-1990s as a result of court decisions.  For the first ten years or so, it was a winning issue for conservatives, but then things started to swing around.  Now support for same-sex marriage is becoming the mainstream position, and many conservatives seem to be giving up the fight.  Abortion, of course, has been a contentious issue for more than 40 years.

Edsall gave figures showing  substantial change in public opinion on premarital sex and women's careers and concluded that "with all of their demographic problems, the question is, how much can Republicans afford to fool around with this particular kind of political dynamite? [ie, restricting abortion]."  What makes his article strange is that he doesn't give any figures on public opinion about abortion except for some peripheral issues, even though there have been many questions over the years.

In order to give a summary of public opinion on abortion, I picked a question that has been asked by Gallup since the 1970s:  "Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?"  The first time it was asked (1977), 22% chose "legal under any circumstances," 19% chose "illegal," and 55% chose "certain circumstances."  The last time (January 2014), the numbers were 27% legal, 20% illegal, and 51% under certain circumstances.  For what happened in between, see the figure, which gives the difference between percent choosing legal and percent choosing illegal.

Basically, nothing has happened.  There are ups and downs, some of which are too big to be explained by sampling variations, but they have very little pattern.  They might reflect short-term reactions to particular events, or the mysterious variation that sometimes occurs among different surveys.  So hard-line opposition to abortion is not "political dynamite," any more than it was in the 1970s.  It repels some voters, but appeals to an almost equally large number.  

[Data from iPoll, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

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