Uh oh: New WaPo/ABC poll puts abortion support at generational high

A philosophical shift, or just crisis fatigue? A new Washington Post/ABC poll shows support for legal abortion rising to its highest level in the series in almost 25 years, hitting 60%. It comes as court fights ramp up over a series of laws passed in southern and Midwestern states that sharply restrict access to abortion, and the two are almost certainly related:

Support for legal abortion stands at its highest level in more than two decades according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, even as numerous states adopt restrictions that challenge the breadth of rights established by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

The Post-ABC poll finds a 60 percent majority who say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, up from 55 percent in a 2013 Post-ABC poll, and tying the record high level of support from 1995. The latest survey finds 36 percent say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, also tying a record low.

Is this really a warmer embrace of abortion itself, or just a reaction to a glut of abortion-restricting laws? The poll hints at the latter:

A 41 percent plurality of Americans want their own states to avoid making it either harder or easier for women to have access to abortion. Fewer (32 percent) say their states should make it easier and fewer still (24 percent) say their states should make it harder for women to have access to abortion.

This looks more like a reaction — and not a very large one at that — to the legislative activism taking place in strongly pro-life states. It recalls the wisdom adopted by the pro-life movement to focus more on hearts and minds rather than laws and lawsuits in order to build momentum for later legislative action. Until now, that has been paying off slowly and incrementally in changing people’s minds about abortion and especially its nature. Until that change of heart really takes root, Americans will be most comfortable sticking with the status quo.

This poll isn’t terribly well designed to get to the nuances of public sentiment on abortion anyway. Asking whether abortion should be legal/illegal in “all cases” or “most cases” says nothing about which cases matter. Gallup’s long-range polling on these questions is better structured for that purpose. Gallup has yet to run a survey this year on abortion, but last year’s results on the specifics of legality suggests that not much has changed at all even while the WaPo/ABC poll was showing an overall increase:

Americans’ support for the legality of abortion varies sharply when they are asked to evaluate it on a trimester basis, which is consistent with the pattern Gallup has found for more than 20 years. Six in 10 U.S. adults think abortion should generally be legal in the first three months of pregnancy. However, support drops by about half, to 28%, for abortions conducted in the second three months, and by half again, to 13%, in the final three months.

Current abortion attitudes, from Gallup’s May 1-10 Values and Beliefs poll, are similar to the prior update, in 2012, as well as to Gallup’s first measure of this question, in 1996.

Gallup also asked the legal question in terms of both trimesters and motives, which demonstrated the mixed emotions Americans have on abortion overall:

Note that all of the >60% support categories even in the first trimester involve violence or near-certain death of the child. Otherwise, support for abortion even in the Roe paradigm drops below 60%, and abortion on demand for no good reason doesn’t even get majority support within that paradigm. And note too that the vast majority of abortions fall into that bottom category; even the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute acknowledges that only 1% or so of abortions involve rape and/or incest.

It’s still clear that the pro-life movement has a long way to go. At some point, legislative efforts will be necessary, but it might be better to remain patient until a mandate develops that truly reflects progress on defining life and its sanctity.