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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

Although there have been a series of recent polls suggesting declining support for abortion choice — see our previous coverage here — another new poll from CNN comes to an apparently contradictory conclusion:

The 1973 Roe versus Wade decision established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Would you like to see the Supreme Court completely overturn its Roe versus Wade decision, or not?

30% Yes, overturn
68% No, not overturn

The 68 percent level of support for upholding Roe v Wade is the highest of any poll I can find in the PollingReport.com database, although opinion on this question — like most others on abortion — has historically changed very little over time:

I’ve seen some complaints from conservative websites that CNN’s poll wording is misleading — first because they insert the modifier “completely” before before the phrase “overturn its Roe v Wade decision”, and secondly because the poll specifies that the decision applies only to the first three months of pregnancy. I’m glad that people are getting in the habit of scrutinizing question wording and undoubtedly it makes some difference. In 2005, for example, Pew Research — which was using virtually identical question wording — found that removing the word “completely” decreased support for Roe from 62 percent to 57 percent.

Nevertheless, CNN’s question wording is fairly common, having been used by Pew, AP and NBC/WSJ in the past (although not by CNN itself, which used different wording when the last surveyed this question in 2007), and support for Roe has never been quite as high as 68 percent.

The reason this poll may be important is because the meanings of the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are at least somewhat fungible; years of Democrats saying things like “I am personally opposed to abortion, but I don’t think I have a right to impose my few on the rest of society” (as Vice President Biden has may serve to blur the lines a little bit. Likewise, questions about whether abortion should be legal in all/some/no circumstances may elicit different responses depending on exactly what those circumstances are perceived to be. The Republican have, somewhat smartly, shifted the debate in recent years to so-called ‘partial-birth’ (late-term) abortions, which overwhelming majorities of Americans oppose. If Americans think of the ‘some’ category as being represented by partial birth abortions — as opposed to, say, abortions in the case of rape or incest — this may alter their responses to pollsters accordingly.

In spite of this poll, I don’t think Democrats ought to take for granted that public opinion is etched in stone on the abortion choice issue. That increasing numbers of young people, for instance, are apparently taking a pro-life, but pro-gay marriage position suggests that terms on which this issue was debated among Baby Boomers may not resonate in the same ways with Gen Y’ers, whose opinions may be more malleable.

The more obvious and salient fact, however, as we are about to begin the debate over President Obama’s Supreme Court pick, is that support for Roe v Wade has always been higher than support for either the “pro-choice” or the legal abortion positions in the abstract, and remains that way today. Republicans are probably in error if they think they can gain ground with the public by vigorously opposing Obama’s Supreme Court pick for this reason.

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