Poll: Majority Of Americans Are Pro-Life

A new Gallup poll indicates a majority of Americans identify as pro-life, for the first time since Gallup began asking the question in 1995. Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll explains the data, and Democratic Strategist Celinda Lake discusses how changing attitudes about abortion rights could mean a change of dialogue on the political stage.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we will talk about what the future holds for Sri Lanka as the near-three-decade-long civil war there seems to be coming to a close. We'll talk with two women whose own lives have been intertwined with the conflict about what they see for the future.

But first, back here in the U.S., we're going to ask about why attitudes seem to be shifting on one of this country's most polarizing issues, abortion. A new Gallup poll found that a slight majority, 51 percent of Americans, now identify themselves as pro-life. This is a significant shift from just a year ago, when half of all Americans said they were pro-choice, and just 44 percent called themselves pro-life. And in fact, this is the first time a majority of Americans have described themselves as pro-life since Gallup started asking the question in 1995.

Joining me to talk about the new numbers, and what they could mean on the political stage, is Frank Newport. He is the editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll; he joins us from his office in Princeton, New Jersey. Also with us is Democratic strategist Celinda Lake, president of the polling firm Lake Research Partners. She is on the line from Rhinebeck, New York. Welcome to you both, thank you for joining us.

Ms. CELINDA LAKE (President, Lake Research Partners; Democratic Strategist): Thank you for having us.

Mr. FRANK NEWPORT (Editor in Chief, Gallup Poll): My pleasure to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now Frank, just to recap, last year when you asked the same question, 44 percent of those who responded said they were pro-life; now, 51 percent say they are pro-life. Is this an unusual shift on a question like this in just one year and, of course, we want to know what you make of it.

Mr. NEWPORT: It is a significant change. And it's not just that one poll. We actually replicated that and conducted a totally separate sample of another thousand individuals, and we found essentially the same change. And then we looked around and found that the Pew Research Center had found also a significant shift to the more conservative on abortion. Fox News poll found significant shifts to the more conservative position on abortion and other polls have as well, and not just on that question.

The other question we track is, should abortion be totally legal, totally illegal, or legal in some circumstances? And we found a shift in that question, as well, towards a more conservative position.

So when you put all of that data together, not just this one question in one poll, it does suggest that there has been a shift to the point where Americans express more conservative attitudes on abortion now than they did a year ago. Why? Good question, you know. That's the interesting fact that we are pondering here. We think, looking at a lot of data, that it may be a reaction to having a Democratic president in the White House, because we've also seen a shift to the conservative on, for example, gun control this year, as opposed to last year.

So we think it may have something to do with Republicans in particular, because that's where most of the change took place, and Republicans adopting -perhaps in reaction to having this Democratic president in the office - a more conservative position on these issues.

MARTIN: Celinda, Celinda Lake, what do you make of it?

Ms. LAKE: Well, I think that Frank really hit on something at the end. There are a couple things. One, it does tend to be due to polarization of the Republicans and sadly, there used to be a lot of pro-choice Republicans and there aren't as many of them anymore. And so when Republicans become more polarized in reaction to a Democratic, pro-choice president, they drag the numbers down.

I think it's also accompanied by a certain complacency on the part of Democrats and independents, who do tend to be pro-choice and who say, we have a very pro-choice president, we have a very pro-choice first lady, we don't have to worry about anything anymore. It'll be interesting to see around, say, the Supreme Court battle, if there tends to be more galvanizing on the pro-choice side when there is actually a fight.

We've seen this trend at some other points in time as well. We saw it around certain points of the Clinton presidency as well. Not quite as dramatically, but where the pro-choice side and the Democrats and independents thought, I can focus on something else and the pro-life, Republican side got very energized because they felt threatened.

The last thing I would say is what's really important, though, is how voters are reacting to specific things that are on the agenda and specific electoral choices that are being given to them. And actually, the 2008 elections were some of the most pro-choice elections that we've had…

MARTIN: What do you mean by that?

Ms. LAKE: Beat back anti-choice initiatives in South Dakota, certainly no bastion of liberal ideology; Oregon; California in 2006 and 2008; Colorado. You had a very pro-choice president get elected, and voters knew that he was very pro-choice. He picked up additional pro-choice members of Congress. So when people actually were voting this issue, they were voting in a pro-choice direction.

And finally, I would say I think the major emphasis here - and the president spoke to it - answered all of the pro-choice groups. It's a time when voters would really like the politicians to come together around an agenda of reproductive health and prevention, and making sure that in the new health-care plan, etc., that women have access to healthy reproductive health choices and the full range of choices.

And also that we unite together - whether it's funding birth control or medically accurate sex education - to actually prevent unintended pregnancies.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin, and I'm speaking with Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, and Democratic strategist and pollster Celinda Lake. And we're taking about a new Gallup poll that indicates that when it comes to abortion rights, a majority of Americans now identify themselves as pro-life. That's the first time that's happened since 1995, when Gallup started asking that question.

Frank Newport, Celinda's suggesting that Americans are reacting to specific policy choices presented to them, but I still want to ask you, and I want to ask, of course, whether you agree with that, but I still want to ask how the numbers break down, for example, along party lines and along gender lines?

Mr. NEWPORT: Well, at party lines, it's straightforward; Republicans have been and continue to be very conservative on values issues. This is not a great shock, obviously. And most of the change we have seen, as I mentioned a moment ago on this question of abortion, actually has come about among Republicans. Democrats and independents have stayed fairly level in terms of their attitudes and of course, Democrats are much more likely to identify themselves as pro-choice, and also more likely to put themselves in a position where they say either that abortion should be totally legal, in response to that question, or legal with some circumstances.

Democrats very unlikely to say it should be totally illegal. So there's major partisan gaps on this issue and most of the other values issues that we have put in front of people. Women are more likely to be Democrats in America today and so they - women - would be more likely to adopt the more liberal position on abortion.

MARTIN: And so - and to Celinda's point that this is - because one of the things that was curious to me is are we - we're used to thinking of these issues like abortion and the death penalty as one in which people know what they think, and they think what they think, and it doesn't change very much. Celinda's suggesting that people really respond to the specific question in front of them. Do you think that that's so?

Mr. NEWPORT: Well, certainly. People - you know, I wrote this in a book - couple of years ago, I wrote about polling. We sometimes think people have hard-coded attitudes in a filing cabinet in their brain, and all we as pollsters do - have to - is tap into the right drawer and pull it out, and there's the attitude. But that's not the case. You know, Americans' feelings about issues, particularly little more obscure issues, move up and down in response to questions and question wording and a variety of other factors.

A lot of Americans, you know, move around in terms of where they stand on these complex issues. As I mentioned a moment ago, even though we had 50 or 51 percent of Americans say they are pro-life, far fewer than that say that abortion should be made totally illegal, so we have a lot of people who call themselves pro-life, who still say abortion should be legal, at least in some circumstances. So clearly, when one tries to typify the public on abortion, one needs to look at a series of different measures.

MARTIN: Celinda, one of the things that intrigues me is something you had talked about earlier, you and Frank both, is that last year, when 50 percent of Americans said they were pro-choice, we had a pro-life president who strongly identified with the Christian evangelical community. And now, with a pro-choice president, more people are tilting toward a pro-life stance. I'm just curious about that interplay there.

Ms. LAKE: It's actually a very common pattern that we see, that people respond to whether or not there is a threat to their position. And first of all, I will say this, that I think the pro-choice and pro-life labels in general are fairly loose labels. And we know from other work that we've done, when we just ask people pro-choice, sometimes people even get confused about which choice we're talking about. So - and there's at least about a good fifth of the voters who are pretty confused by these labels.

But having said that, I mean, Frank has demonstrated the shift here among Republicans on a variety of issues, not just the pro-choice, pro-life label. But it's very common for us to see when, particularly in the kind of original honeymoon days, we saw this in '92. We saw it at some other points in time in the Clinton presidency, that when people are - people think, for example, with Clinton, people thought he was very pro-choice. They also thought that if he ever did anything anti-choice, Hillary would kill him.

And so - and similarly you have now, people think you have a very modern young president, very pro-choice, very pro-choice first lady. And so the pro-choice side says, I've got other things to worry about, let's go worry about global warming, let's go worry about the economy.

I've got other things on my mind. The pro-life side says, oh, we're going to see a lot of changes that we don't want, that Bush wouldn't have done. They were more complacent during the Bush years, because they said we have a pro-life president. And so it's a very common pattern to see the opposite side energized around sense of threat.

MARTIN: And so what does this - what are the implications, that you think, for policy and how this issue moves forward?

Ms. LAKE: Well, I think the major implication for policy is honestly that it has nothing to do with these shifts, which are partisan in nature and polarized in nature. I think the really interesting question here is - are the things that 80 percent of the public agree on. And that is uniting in an agenda of prevention - prevention of unintended pregnancies, therefore obviously, prevention for the need for abortion as well.

The desire for healthy choices, the commitment to medically accurate sex education. We've done quite a bit of work on sex education. The conservative politicians have pushed abstinence only, public likes abstinence as a component, but they also think it's pretty unrealistic. And as one person in our focus group said, abstinence only, only, only, that's very unrealistic (unintelligible), so let's have abstinence, but let's have some other things too, like birth control, teaching our kids about STDs and sexually transmitted diseases. And keep, in general, taking steps to keep them safe and healthy.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. LAKE: And that's a strong agenda.

MARTIN: All right. Frank, we have only about a half a minute left, I'm afraid. But I wanted to ask is, are you seeing a parallel shift to more conservative attitudes on other social issues, like gun rights and same-sex marriage?

Mr. NEWPORT: As I mentioned, we did on gun rights; we have not on same-sex marriage. The majority of Americans still oppose legalized same-sex marriage, and we looked carefully. But we have not seen a significant change in either direction on that measure.

MARTIN: Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, and Celinda Lake, president of polling firm Lake Research Partners. Thank you both so much for joining us.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LAKE: Thank you.

Mr. NEWPORT: My pleasure.

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