Pro-life advocates increase, but abortion remains complicated and divisive

Published: Wednesday, June 6 2012 6:26 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 24, 2011 file picture, anti-abortion and pro-choice activists stand next to each other in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington during a rally on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SALT LAKE CITY — A historic low 41 percent of Americans consider themselves pro-choice, while 50 percent of Americans say they're pro-life, a new Gallup poll shows.

Pro-lifers are celebrating, but the other side counters that a single statistic can't paint a realistic picture of the divided and nuanced feelings that Americans have about abortion. Those pro-choice proponents refer to the same Gallup poll, which notes that the public opinion about the morality and legality of abortion has "held steady" with 51 percent of Americans considering abortion morally wrong, and 38 percent believing it's morally acceptable — results that mirror the group's May 2011 survey and fall within seven points of each year's survey results since 2001.

"It is notable that while Americans' labeling of their position has changed, their fundamental views on the issue have not," notes Gallup's release of the data. But that doesn't stop politicians from talking about abortion. And in 2011 they said a lot.

Last year, state legislators introduced more than 1,100 reproductive health and rights-related provisions (several may be included in a single bill) — a jump from the 950 provisions introduced in 2010. Of those 1,100, 135 were put into place in 36 states, says the Guttmacher Institute.

Experts and advocates now believe that 2011 may not be the statistical anomaly previously thought, but rather an indication of continuing intensity among pro-life advocates who are boldly pushing for greater protections for the unborn.

Excited by the momentum of legislative successes and label-based popularity, pro-lifers also agree their growing influence will make the issue more polarized and contentious as pro-choice opponents push back against any assault on Roe v. Wade's version of constitutional protection for an abortion.

"Looking nationally, the decibel level around the issue of abortion is just shatteringly high," says Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for Guttmacher Institute, a progressive reproductive health research group. "It would be wonderful if we could bring down the debate to a level where we can talk about abortion even if we disagree."

Beyond labels

In 2011, 70 percent of Americans said that the term "pro-choice" described them somewhat or very well. Yet, nearly 66 percent of Americans also said the term "pro-life" described them somewhat or very well, which portrays an obvious, and seemingly irreconcilable, overlap.

Even within political parties, 52 percent of Republicans and tea partyers said the term "pro-choice" described them at least somewhat well, while 56 percent of Democrats said "pro-life" described them at least somewhat well, according to a report from the Public Religion Research Institute.

"Labels are always really complicated," says Caitlin Borgmann, associate professor at City University of New York School of Law and editor of the Reproductive Rights Prof Blog. "The pro-life label is sufficiently vague and appealing sounding that many members of the public will ascribe to it, even when they would support abortion in many instances. And it suggests that people who are pro-choice are anti-life, but pro-choice people would vigorously deny that, so I think the labels are problematic."

Labels often keep individuals in certain camps, where they focus on a single aspect of a multi-faceted discussion.

"People are pro-life except when it's complicated, basically," says Thad Hall, co-author of "Abortion Politics in Congress" and an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah. "If your daughter is raped, the position changes. If a girl is raped by her father, people generally say yes to abortion. It's not an easy issue. It means that politicians have an easy time playing around the edges with it, but it is hard to address the problem fully."

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