New Polling on Abortion, Same Old Complexity

Signs at the March for Life rally in Washington, D.C., in 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll on abortion has data that both pro-lifers and pro-choicers can take hope from.

That’s because, as always, the public is ambivalent or incoherent, depending on how charitably you want to view it. Forty-seven percent of Americans think abortion should be banned, allowed only to save a mother’s life, or allowed only in cases of rape, incest, and threats to the mother’s life. Any politician who took one of those positions would be considered anti-abortion, and any of them entails the prohibition of the vast majority of abortions. But only 35 percent of the public considers itself “pro-life” and 57 percent considers itself “pro-choice.” So at least 12 percent of Americans take a pro-life position but won’t accept the label; at least 4 percent of Americans take a pro-life position but self-identifies as pro-choice.

Fifty-one percent of the public wants to keep Roe v. Wade or make it more liberal. Assuming perfect knowledge and stable preferences, that means that about a third of the public favors laws on abortion that it also doesn’t want the Supreme Court to allow.

The numbers on whether people consider themselves pro-life or pro-choice have shifted drastically since Marist polled them in February. Back then the two sides were even, at 47 percent apiece. The 22-point gap in favor of the pro-choice side is the kind of margin we have not seen in these polls since the mid-1990s. Maybe this will turn out to be a blip, and the next poll will be more like the ones we’ve seen over the last two decades. If not, you have to wonder whether the spate of state laws attempting to ban most abortions are driving a lot of ambivalent voters to the pro-choice side.

But one thing pro-lifers have working for them, as they usually do, is that they place a higher priority on the issue than pro-choicers do. Seventeen percent of pro-lifers, but only 8 percent of pro-choicers, say abortion will be the most important factor in their vote for president next year.

The question of taxpayer funding for abortion was, unfortunately, not polled.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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