Digging in to the abortion polls

You may have seen the poll released last week that found the majority of Americans identified themselves as “pro-life.”  It seemed to me that the poll was good news but also that it was probably more representative of the inexactness of polling rather than a major shift, especially with sentences like this in the story: “The percentage of Americans who identify as “pro-life” jumped from 44 percent to 51 percent in the last year, according to the poll. Those who identify as “pro-choice” fell from 50 percent to 42 percent over the same period.”  That would be a big jump in just a year, wouldn’t it?

I thought that Eric Zorn had a pretty good exploration in today’s Chicago Tribune.  After reviewing some recent polls, he wrote:

These snapshots show that the pendulum swings slightly around the midpoint but doesn’t gather much momentum either way.

The most telling numbers from Gallup I found were the ones that separate out those who hold unambiguous views on this issue:

Those who say abortion should be legal under any circumstances — April 1975: 21 percent; May 2009: 22 percent.

Those who say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances — April 1975: 22 percent; May 2009, 23 percent.

Over 34 years, the staunch opponents haven’t budged and the middle remains mushy.

If you’re looking for a more telling number to unpack, try 68: That’s the percentage of respondents who told pollsters from CNN/Opinion Research over the weekend that they do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

But if you’re looking for resolution or even real movement on this issue in the near or even distant future, the surveys say you’re out of luck.

This looks like a better approach that taking single polls which are, as he said, “snapshots.”

Of course, the morality of abortion doesn’t depend on polls.  But it is good to have a realistic concept of public opinion if we want to know the task we face in persuading our fellow citizens.


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