NPR/Marist poll: Americans want abortion -- with restrictions

Joe Biden may have gotten back in line with the rest of the Democratic field on abortion, but he may be further out of step than ever with voters. A new poll from NPA and Marist shows a complex political battleground on the issue, with majorities supporting abortion in some cases. It also shows majorities supporting restrictions on it, too, and frustration among many about the debate falling on the extremes:

Three-quarters of Americans say they want to keep in place the landmark Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade, that made abortion legal in the United States, but a strong majority would like to see restrictions on abortion rights, according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll.

What the survey found is a great deal of complexity — and sometimes contradiction among Americans — that goes well beyond the talking points of the loudest voices in the debate. In fact, there’s a high level of dissatisfaction with abortion policy overall. Almost two-thirds of people said they were either somewhat or very dissatisfied, including 66% of those who self-identify as “pro-life” and 62% of those who self-identify as “pro-choice.”

“What it speaks to is the fact that the debate is dominated by the extreme positions on both sides,” said Barbara Carvalho, director of the Marist Poll, which conducted the survey. “People do see the issue as very complicated, very complex. Their positions don’t fall along one side or the other. … The debate is about the extremes, and that’s not where the public is.”

That may not be where the public is, but that’s because abortion itself is both extreme and uncompromising. If one believes life starts at conception — a position consistent with science — then abortion kills a human life and presumably would have to be opposed altogether. If life does not start at conception, then it’s not about the baby but the mother and her autonomy over her own body, which cannot be abridged. It’s not like ag policy or even immigration, where compromises can easily be made to accommodate all reasonable political positions.

It’s curious, therefore, to see just how nuanced people view the essential core question of abortion. There seems to be a lot of denial in play here:

Overall, 38% believe life begins at conception, a position which correlates pretty well with the 35% who identify as “pro-life.” The conception position is by far the plurality in the poll, with the next largest contingent being “at birth” (16%). Those represent the firm scientific and the firm legalistic positions in the poll, and combined they make up 54% of the sample. (Note well that “conception” is the plurality position among Democrats, too.) The rest are scattered between varying definitions of viability and humanness, positions that try to avoid the necessary implications of answering the core question. Small wonder, then, that the debate takes place on the extremes.

Unfortunately, the escalation by pro-life legislators over the past few weeks has had an impact on the momentum of the pro-life movement, at least according to this poll. Only 35% of respondents identify as pro-life now, a significant shift from four months earlier:

The percentage self-identifying as “pro-choice” is an increase since a Marist Poll in February, when the two sides split with 47% each. The pollsters attribute that shift to efforts in various states to severely restrict abortion.

That effort may make sense as a legal strategy to challenge Roe, or more accurately, to challenge Casey. It comes at a cost, however, by polarizing the political battlefield. At least at this point, Americans want abortions available at some level, and a direct attack on it may carry with it some potential for backfire on the movement’s efforts to sway public opinion. That, too, is more of a consequence about the nature of abortion, and just an unavoidable consequence of fighting it.

That same dynamic is in play for Democrats, however. If the pro-choice cause gets too wrapped up in a “free abortions for everyone at all stages of gestation” platform, the public will rebel against that too. Biden’s abandonment of his centrist positions might play well briefly in the primaries — although it’s so obviously self-serving now that it seems doubtful — but it will make Democrats look even more extreme than ever.