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(WOMENSENEWS)–Anti-choice legislation is going strong.
In the first half of 2012, states passed 39 new abortion restrictions, according to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute.
At least three* abortion-related measures will be on the ballots in November; one in Florida, regarding both public funding and privacy issues,* and another in Montana, regarding parental notification. (An Oklahoma personhood initiative is also fighting for a ballot appearance.)
And on July 31 the House of Representatives voted on a bill that would ban abortions in Washington, D.C., after 20 weeks, regardless of the mother’s health. It won majority support but did not pass because it was brought up under special rules requiring a two-thirds majority.
The two political parties, meanwhile, offer clear contrasts on choice. President Barack Obama supports abortion rights and was endorsed in May by NARAL Pro-Choice America, a Washington-based abortion rights advocacy group. Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed in the National Review in 2011 called “My Pro-Life Pledge,” where he says, “I am pro-life and believe that abortion should be limited to only instances of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother” and “I support the reversal of Roe v. Wade, because it is bad law and bad medicine.”
In the past few days, Obama’s campaign used the choice issue to highlight the contrast between himself and his opponents. After Romney announced Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., as his vice presidential running mate, Obama tweeted on Aug. 12 to “Make sure the women in your life know: Paul Ryan supports banning all abortions, even in the case of rape or incest.”
What do most Americans make of this?
That answer should be in polling data, but it’s not so easy to find.
In May, opinion tracker Gallup, headquartered in Washington, D.C., found pro-choice identification at its lowest point–41 percent–since 1995, when it first began asking the question. But that finding raises the contentious question of what respondents might think the terms “pro-life” or “pro-choice” mean at a time when both terms carry heavy political freight.
Peter Brown, assistant director at the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn., said that his organization does not poll on pro-choice or pro-life identification because they are “loaded terms” and “phrases that advocates use.”
But Lydia Saad, a senior polling analyst at Gallup, said it “made sense for us to document it” precisely because that’s “how it’s framed politically” and how candidates identify.
Political Lexicon’s Power
The power of the political lexicon to alter opinion was demonstrated in the 1990s with the arrival of the “partial-birth abortion” term, coined in 1995 by the National Right to Life Committee as a medically meaningless phrase to describe a then-new abortion procedure called dilation and extraction, or D and X. The procedure, usually performed after the 19th week of pregnancy, involves dilating the cervix to extract the fetus, according to a 2003 WeNews report.
WeNews reported, during the maelstrom over the procedure, that women testifying before Congress described how the medical procedure saved their lives.
The term crept into widespread media usage, however, and by July 1996 was associated with a rise in respondents’ pro-life identification, Gallup’s Saad wrote in a 1998 analysis paper.
“People’s understanding of what it meant to be pro-choice” changed, Saad told Women’s eNews, and it “drove people away from that label at that point.”
Taking a longer view, however, Saad sees consistently nuanced views of abortion, with trend lines on what people think should be legal in various circumstances–all, some or none–mostly stable between 1994 and this year. However, in her 1998 analysis paper Saad wrote, in “July 1996 . . . Gallup recorded a significant drop in the number of Americans saying abortion should be legal in all cases, coincident with the emergence of a loud national debate over partial-birth abortion.”
That meant that national debates can affect not only identification, but opinions on legality.
But many researchers say that despite the current onslaught of abortion restrictions a consistent majority supports keeping abortion legal.
The “data there are stunningly stable,” said Robert Shapiro, a professor of political science at Columbia University who researches partisan polarization and ideological politics.
When asked “In general, do you agree or disagree with the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion?” Quinnipiac trends from 2005 to 2012 show support for Roe v. Wade between 60 to 65 percent. Quinnipiac has also seen stability on the legality issue between 2004 and 2012.
But Gallup data for that same time period comes up differently.
Between 2005 and 2008, Gallup asked “Would you like to see the Supreme Court overturn its 1973 Roe versus Wade decision concerning abortion, or not?” In that span of years it found a majority opposing the overturn of Roe.
But between 2006 and 2008 it found a 14-point drop in respondents who opposed an overturning of Roe, a 5-point increase in those who say it should be overturned and a 6-point increase in the number who had no opinion. (Gallup has not updated the responses since 2008 because it is one of their “occasional abortion trends” as opposed to an annual trend, according to Saad.)
Clear Cooling Trend
Public support for low-income women’s abortion access, however, seems to be in a clear cooling trend.
The General Social Survey (GSS), which is conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Data Program for the Sciences, has been asking specific questions on abortion attitudes since 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade was decided.
According to the GSS, the vast majority of respondents have believed since 1972 that abortion should be legal to save a mother’s life.
But there have been substantial fluctuations in the case of women belonging to families with “very low income.” The question begins, “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion . . . “
Michael New, a professor of political science at University of Michigan-Dearborn who wrote an opinion piece on the Gallup poll for Lifenews.com, an anti-choice website, said that public opinion has warmed as the anti-abortion movement has shed certain kinds of extremism.
New said few people identified with the clinic blockades formerly associated with what he called the pro-life position. But now those associations have “faded from public consciousness,” he said.
Columbia University’s Shapiro noted that pro-choice identification was also low in 2009 yet rose in 2010 and 2011. “I wouldn’t want to generalize too much until I saw next poll,” he said.
One comprehensive website offers a dizzyingly long list of poll results that offer little in the way of apples-to-apples comparisons because they are all phrased differently and measure opinion in a variety of ways.
NARAL Pro-Choice America argues if you look past all the confusing polling data you will find that when people go to the polls they still vote pro-choice.
Looking Past the Data
In May, on the heels of a Gallup poll finding weak on pro-choice identification, NARAL said that of the 11 abortion-related ballot initiatives introduced since 2005–which included “personhood” initiatives giving legal rights to a fertilized egg, outright abortion bans and parental notification laws — 10 did not pass, even in conservative states such as Mississippi. The only initiative that succeeded was parental notification in Alaska.
“Any increase in anti-abortion sentiment is not reflected at ballot,” Ted Miller, head of communications for NARAL Pro-Choice America, told WeNews.
He also pointed to a drop in the popularity of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell during a February debate on transvaginal ultrasounds, a procedure where an ultrasound is performed by inserting a probe into the vagina. A state bill mandated the procedure before undergoing an abortion, although after national pushback it was removed from the legislation, according to the LA Times.
University of Michigan-Dearborn’s anti-choice New said of the ballot initiatives, “We tend to get outspent by opponents.” In the 11 ballot initiatives mentioned by NARAL, he said the pro-choice side spent more in 10 cases, Mississippi being the sole exception. He also noted that many who identify as pro-life believe there should be exceptions for rape and incest, which personhood would not allow.
New added that personhood raised “side issues” of contraception and in vitro fertilization. That’s because a decent success rate for IVF, a procedure used by couples struggling with infertility, requires doctors to fertilize more eggs than they will end up implanting in the woman, according to a 2011 Daily Beast article. But under a personhood law, any fertilized egg is considered a person.
*This story originally only referred to the public funding aspect of the ballot initiative.
Samantha Kimmey is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y., covering women and politics this election season.
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