Thursday, January 28, 2010


We are NOT the Anti-Abortion Rights Generation

Reading today's Dartmouth Op-Ed by Peter Blair "Pro-Life Generation", you would get the sense that not only are Americans increasingly against abortion rights, but the youth of America are also against abortion rights. Although the article is mostly composed of "field" reports from a "pro-life" rally (the obvious place for "fair and balanced" statistical evidence), the article does make mention of one actual poll. Blair writes "Earlier this year, a Gallup opinion poll showed that, for the first time since Gallup started taking this poll, more Americans are pro-life (51 percent) than pro-choice (42 percent)". Blair is right that this Gallup poll was the first in which more adults said they were "pro-life" than "pro-choice".

Of course, many other polls taken over the past 15 years have also registered more support for the pro-life than the pro-choice position. For example, five Fox News polls taken over the last ten years have found more pro-life than pro-choice Americans, while ten polls during this same time frame found more Americans were pro-choice.

As this table, provided by, shows us, the changes in opinion do not occur in any sort of chronological order. They are, for all intents and purposes, random fluctuations. Gallup polls also shows these seemingly random changes.

Why do Americans seem to be consistently changing their positions between being pro-choice and pro-life? The answer is that the question is vague. For instance, many people claim that they are personally pro-life or pro-choice, while they don't "have a right to impose [their] view on the rest of society." Rudolph Giuliani, 2008 Republican candidate for President, was personally pro-life and promised to appoint "strict constructionists" to the Supreme Court, but he favored maintaining the legalization of abortion rights. Giuliani and people with similar ideological positions would probably answer a survey question asking whether they were pro-life or pro-choice "pro-life" when thinking about how they view themselves. However, they would call their position “pro-choice” when thinking about their public views. Two people who hold the same position could answer differently depending on what they think the question is asking. Also, the same person could answer one way one time and a different way another time depending on their mental-frame at the time the question is asked.

In order to truly understand Americans views on abortion, we should ask more straight forward questions. We should ask whether Americans want Roe V. Wade to be overturned. Nate Silver using the database found that Americans have consistently answered that they do NOT want Roe V. Wade to be overturned. In fact, more Americans today are in favor of the decision that upholds Americans' right to an abortion than at any time in the past 10 years.

We should also ask whether or not Americans believe that abortion should be legal. The ABC-Washington Post poll has been asking that question for the past 15 years, and they have always found that a majority of Americans want it to be always or mostly legal (vs. mostly or always illegal). Note that only one change in the position of Americans seems to be drastic, which should be expected considering that one out of every 20 poll is assumed to have a result that falls outside the margin of error. Besides this one poll, the changes from survey to survey seem to be within the margin of error and are not the wild swings seen in the pro-life/pro-choice polls.

As to the point that the youth of America are becoming increasingly against abortion, I point to two Quinnipiac polls (because most pollsters do not release results by age). One was taken in December 2004, and one was taken five years later in January 2010. The 2004 poll found 55% of those 18-29 years old favored abortion being always or mostly legal, while 43% wanted it to be mostly or always illegal. In 2010, 53% of those 18-34 years old (slightly different age break down, but very similar) favored abortion being always or mostly legal, while 44% wanted it to be mostly or always illegal.

In layman's terms, the youth of America's position on abortion has been constant over the past five years: they want it to be legal. Their views on the issue are not different from the population at large (see chart above).

Mr. Blair may be seeing one thing at his "pro-life" rallies, but the numbers tell a far different story.

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