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Posted by on May 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

Gallup, “Pro-Life” America & Culture Wars

Today, there are two interesting columns on the new Gallup poll showing that a record-low 41% of Americans self-identify as “Pro-Choice.”  Just last July, 47% of Americans embraced the “Pro-Choice” label.  Meanwhile, 50% of Americans call themselves “Pro-Life.”  This stat is down just one-point from the record-high in 2009 of 51%.

Over at Washington Post’s On Faith, Ashley McGuire, a Senior Fellow with The Catholic Association, uses these new stats as a springboard to claim that Americans “especially young Americans are rejecting [abortion] with increasing disgust, and not just for religious reasons.”  Giving herself a good ole pat on the back, McGuire concludes:

Yup. Here we come. Our marches may get measly coverage. We may be the pitied laughingstock of ‘sophisticated’ urban cocktail parties. We may champion the Cinderella of human rights issues.

But we are winning. And our cause is life.

Southern Baptist theologian Owen Strachan has also weighed in.  Strachan is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

In his post titled “What it means That Only 41% of Americans are ‘Pro-choice'” Strachan writes about the new stats:

…this is a surprising development, a significant one.  This means that the “culture war” has not been for naught….All the campus pro-life groups and silent protests and counseling at abortion clinics and legislative action and making of films like Bella and careful appointment of pro-life justices and, most importantly, prayer, has all been worth it.  This is not to say that abortion is now illegal.  It is not.  But it seems that gains are being made.

Most notably, Strachan and McGuire BOTH neglect to reference the new stats in the SAME Gallup poll detailing the views of Americans toward the legality of abortion.  Check ’em out:

In light of this graph, what do the new “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice” stats really mean?  These stats seem fairly consistent.  Ten years ago, 51% of Americans held that abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances.  Today, that number is 52%.

Ten years ago, 25% of Americans backed abortion rights under ANY circumstances.  Today, that number is still 25%.
Ten years ago, 22% of Americans declared that abortion should be illegal in ALL circumstances.  Today, that number is down to 20%.

The question begs, when Catholics like Ashley McGuire and Southern Baptists like Owen Strachan declare “WINNING,” what are they talking about?  If the attitudes of Americans toward abortion rights is virtually unchanged, where’s the victory?

As a side note, I realize that theologians, columnists and commentators are not social scientists.  But, McGuire and Strachan should have dealt with the entirety of the Gallup report rather than cherry-picking one particular finding that serves their ideological purpose.  McGuire’s comments about Americans rejection of abortion just doesn’t jive with the findings of Gallup.

Even Gallup’s survey of Americans’ views on the morality of abortion are fairly consistent.  Ten years ago, 38% of Americans said that abortion was morally acceptable.  Today, that number is unchanged.  Ten years ago, 53% of Americans said abortion is morally wrong.  And today, that stat is two points lower, down to 51% of Americans.

The question that Strachan and McGuire ought to be asking is: what does it mean to be “pro-life”?

The stats suggest that quite a few Americans view supporting abortion rights under certain circumstances as compatible with being “pro-life.”

For 35+ years, a majority of Americans have rejected the extremes in this culture war, holding what I’ve called the Jimmy Carter position on abortion and abortion rights.

Perhaps the Jimmy Carter position now defines – more than ever – what it means to be “pro-life” in the United States!


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  1. Aaron,

    I’m pro-life. I believe that human beings are, from conception, human persons—that all human beings are human persons. And yet, I wouldn’t answer that I want abortion to be illegal in all circumstances.

    Show me a circumstance in which the mother is, pretty much indisputably, going to die of medical causes beyond anyone’s control unless the life of the baby is taken immediately—imminent biological mortal risk to the mother—and I would not be in favor of an abortion being illegal in that circumstance.

    There are a great many relatively rare circumstances in which, of two people in that circumstance, one of them must die that the other might live (for example, a Sherpa leaving an incapacitated climber behind on the peak of Mount Everest). The law can acknowledge these rare, extreme situations without denying the personhood of one of the people involved.

    If we could get there—to the point where unborn people are acknowledged by the law as people with basic human rights—then I’m content with abortion’s being legal basically in the same circumstances in which manslaughter (not the criminal offense, but the underlying concept) is legal.

  2. When you look at scholarship and studies on religion and religious attitudes toward abortion, the position of the SBC and Catholic Church (to name the two largest) with regard to abortion is put under the “illegal under any circumstances”

    The SBC falls within this classification even though the official position per resolutions allows for an exception when there is an imminent threat to the physical health of the woman (not sure the precise language, I think “imminent” and “physical” have been used in resolutions).

    Some may hold to this sole exception and select the “only under certain circumstances option.” I don’t know. But I think most folks who select that middle option when polled have in mind circumstances not a circumstance.

    So “imminent physical harm to mother” is one circumstance. Rape is another circumstance. Incest is another circumstance. Etc.

    Gallup doesn’t ask these questions. But other studies have looked more closely at what respondents mean by “certain circumstances” or “limited exceptions” and found that the exceptions/circumstances generally include AT LEAST the three mentioned above.

    To restate my main point, while more identify as “pro-life,” the question that should be asked is: what does this mean in light of the other statistics that have been fairly consistent for 35 years now?

    I’m just not sure what “WINNING” means here if attitudes toward the legality of abortion aren’t budging.

  3. Interesting interaction, Aaron. Appreciate the stimulating conversation and generally fair tone. I did see the stats you mentioned. I didn’t say that the data I cited meant more than that it’s meaningful that people are shying away from the “pro-choice” label. That, in my view, is a victory.

    I actually said in the post, furthermore, that there is a great deal of ground to cover in the fight for life. So I’m not sure you fairly represented my full position.

  4. I guess I don’t see how the stat you cite is meaningful in light of the stats that you didn’t cite?

    By itself, that stat has meaning. But taken together with the entire survey, what is the meaning, the victory?

    You can’t isolate a statistic and give it meaning while neglecting the other stats surveying the same group of people. That’s the equivalent of yanking a verse out of the Bible and not considering the other verses surrounding it.

    I don’t put alot of stock in how people label themselves. What then does the pro-life label really mean if a substantial percentage of self-identified pro-life individuals support abortion rights?

    Perhaps we are seeing the “pro-life” label – as individuals apply it to themselves – evolve and encompass a diversity of viewpoints with regard to abortion.

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