What Drives Americans’ Shifting Opinions on Abortion Rights?

A new Gallup Poll, issued yesterday, showed a plurality of Americans identifying themselves as “pro-life.” You can see the results of the poll here, but the essential statistic that Gallup found is that 47 percent of those asked identified with the “pro-life” position while 45 percent of those responding said they were “pro-choice.” When compared to 1995, when only 33 percent of Americans polled claimed to be “pro-life” while 56 percent said they were “pro-choice,” it shows a marked shift toward the right. On the other hand, as recently as last May the divide was more decided: then, 51 percent were “pro-life” while 42 percent claimed to be “pro-choice.”

Why the shift? There are signs that Americans are becoming more concerned about the morality of abortion. The same Gallup poll found that 50 percent of Americans find abortion morally wrong while 38 percent did not. That is a shift from 2001 when 45 percent found it wrong while 42 percent did not. Some of that change may be driven by the advances in medical science that have pushed the viability of a fetus – that is, its ability, if delivered to live – earlier and earlier. But Gallup favors the notion that our increasingly polarized political dialogue is influencing opinion. Since most of the increase in “pro-life” identification is among Republicans and Independents, the notion is that the intensity of the political debate on all subjects is causing a hardening of positions that wasn’t there fifteen years ago.

The implications for the so-called independent judiciary are stark. Because it is such a polarizing subject, abortion strikes fear among legislators, but not even the Courts can ignore a political divide that inspires such strongly held feelings. Look for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan to respond to questions on abortion by safely saying that she respects stare decisis (i.e., Roe v Wade) and demur from offering opinions on how any future abortion cases should be decided.

TB

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