Attitudes on Abortion: The Yellow Flag Stays Out

Faced this spring and summer with some discordant polling numbers on abortion, it looked best to await further data. With the year closing out, we’ve got enough of it to keep the caution flag out.

Polling by Gallup last spring, and then by Pew Research in August, drew headlines with their reports that support for legal abortion had dropped significantly. I noted after the Pew report that a variety of other, contemporaneous measurements had shown no such change. What’s appeared since?

While a bit of a muddle, more recent data don’t confirm a shift in attitudes. Latest is a Washington Post poll completed Nov. 23; it found 54 percent saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases, essentially the same as in an ABC/Post poll in June, 55 percent, and very near the long-term average in more than two dozen ABC/Post polls that have asked the question since 1995, 56 percent.

Oddly, this is precisely the same question that came in at 47 percent for Pew in August and 46 percent in April – significantly lower than in our own data. One difference appears to be in administration: Pew had 8 and 10 percent, respectively, expressing no opinion; we’ve averaged 3 percent. Undecideds to some extent are a function of polling technique – and in this case, if those who express an opinion more hesitantly do so in favor of legal abortion, the difference in results would be almost entirely explained.

CNN, which asks a different question, in a different, two-part way, found 36 percent in mid-November saying abortion should be legal under any or most circumstances, essentially the same as in June (37 percent) and in polls in 2006 and 2007, albeit down from some earlier readings (e.g., a high of 46 percent in 1994). Also in mid-November, a CBS poll found 34 percent saying abortion should be “generally available.” That matches the low in readings since 2003, but there’s been wobble here; it matched its high, 41 percent, just a month earlier.

Last month Pew, for its part, repeated another question; it found 40 percent saying they favor making it more difficult to get an abortion. That’s been as high or higher before (in August, and also in the mid-1980s), but it’s also been a good deal lower, as low as 30 percent in 1992. Notably, “strong” opposition to this suggestion, at 19 percent, was at a new low, and way down from its high, 35 percent in 1993. At the same time, Pew had 16 percent undecided on this question – seven points more than it had just in August, with support for abortion as currently available down by an identical 7 points.

Pew: Favor/oppose making it more difficult to get an abortion?

Favor Oppose No opin. 11/15/09 40% 43 16 8/17/09 41 50 9

Finally, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in October found 51 percent saying abortion should be “left up to the woman and her doctor,” in this case a new low in data back to 1990. It’s been close to this before, 53 percent in 2003, while down from a high of 60 percent in 1991, 1995 and 1997.

I’ve attached all these questions and results in a pdf here. While I see no clear trend, it’s certainly fair to conclude that support for legal abortion is below its highs; that’s the case in every one of these most recent measures. (Setting aside the fact that CBS matched its high just a month previously.)

At the same time, the very fact that these readings on abortion are so different, and in some cases unstable, underscores two points. One, specific to this issue, is that attitudes on abortion are deeply conflicted – far more so than a single number can capture. (See here for details on this point.) The other is that – regardless of the issue at hand – it’s often well-advised to look beyond a single result or even a single set of results when evaluating attitudes, and especially when trying to spot trends.

Certainly we can describe our data as we get it. A prudent next step is to examine whether or not other data are pointing the same way; another, to sit tight before reaching a firm conclusion and see what subsequent measurements show. On abortion, especially, we still need to watch this space.

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