The Ballot Box: The Poll That Matters Most

Celinda Lake

Labels of pro-choice and pro-life do not mean much without the context of textured layers of values and empathy. In fact, in the Gallup poll a majority of people say they are pro-life and they believe abortion should be legal.

In the flurry of analysis and
responses following Gallup’s release of their poll that showed a majority
of Americans identify as pro-life, it is easy to forget a few simple
truths that have formed the core of the debate around abortion since
its inception.  Research has shown that people often hold conflicting
beliefs around abortion, and that they feel ambiguous toward this highly
personal decision.  That said, the vast majority of voters favor abortion
remaining legal.  Only a small cohort of Americans – 12 to 15
percent in most polls – takes the extreme view that all abortions
should be illegal.  While the majority of voters are conflicted
about abortion and tend to favor some regulations, they feel strongly
that this is a deeply personal decision that a woman should make on
her own with her doctor, without politicians and government getting
involved.  This sentiment is as strong as ever. 

Americans may say they are
"pro-life," but the label is misleading.  A significant number
of voters are confused by the labels pro-choice and pro-life. 
If we dig deeper into that label, we find that they are favorable toward
protecting Roe v. Wade, that they value privacy, and reject efforts
of coercion.  Research also shows that many feel that even if they wouldn’t
make the decision to terminate a pregnancy themselves, they do not feel
comfortable telling a woman if she should or should not make that decision
for herself.  They feel even less comfortable having the government or
politicians making this decision.  The labels of pro-choice and
pro-life do not mean much without the context of these textured layers
of values and empathy.  In fact, in the Gallup poll a majority of people
say they are pro-life and they believe abortion should be legal.   

The true debate behind Roe
v. Wade, allowing women to have access to legal, safe reproductive health
services, has been settled for decades.  Public support for Roe v. Wade
remains strong.  In a recent poll by CNN, 68 percent were opposed to
reversing the Roe v. Wade ruling, while only 30 percent wanted to overturn
it.  By rehashing the debate with sensationalist analysis of self-identifying
labels, we take the focus off of reducing unintended pregnancies, off
of providing medically accurate, age appropriate comprehensive sex education,
and off of giving men and women access to a range of birth control options. 
The pro-choice community and the President have argued we should work
together to reduce the number of women seeking abortion and to reduce
unintended pregnancies.   

Looking beneath the data, the
apparent increase in the pro-life label is among Republicans. 
It is common after the election of pro-choice leaders for attitudes
to become more polarized.  Pro-life voters get more firm in their
opinion as they feel threatened.  Meanwhile, pro-choice voters
become less strong in their beliefs as they believe they do not need
to be as vigilant.  The reverse is true when pro-life Presidents
are elected.  We have seen these trends with other elections.   

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The election of President Obama,
as well as several other election results on specific measures, does
more to reveal American voters’ feelings on the issue than the latest
polls.  We voted in a pro-choice president by wide margins and rebuffed
the conservative, pro-life candidate.  In 2008 alone, voters in South
Dakota rejected an abortion ban for the second time, voters in California
rejected mandatory parental notification for the third time, and voters
in Colorado rejected redefining "personhood" as the moment of fertilization,
giving legal rights to embryos.  And, despite significant attempts to
qualify anti-choice initiatives in Georgia, Montana, Missouri, and Oregon
in 2008, efforts to even make the ballot failed in these states.  In
the end, the ballot box is the poll that matters most.   

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