Fresh off the well-worn pavement at the capitol, participants in the March for Life are fired up and optimistic about the future of the movement and its effect on the 2020 presidential election. The Knights of Columbus’s Carl Anderson told Kylee Zempel here at The Federalist, “‘The fact that most Americans want significant restrictions on abortion will affect the results of the 2020 election ‘big time.’”
“While abortion may not be the most-discussed issue in the campaign, most Americans, I’m convinced, will vote for a president on the basis of pro-life or pro-abortion,” he said.
The latest Marist poll sponsored by the Knights of Columbus purports to show seven in 10 Americans “would limit abortion to, at most, the first three months of pregnancy.” It also found that 65 percent of respondents said they “‘are more likely to vote for’ candidates who would limit abortion” to the first trimester.
That paints quite the rosy view of American sentiments on abortion. But other, stronger lines of evidence, including polling data, indicate pro-life sentiments will have little effect on the 2020 presidential race.
It’s easy to curate a set of results that make the pro-life movement look successful in turning the tide of public opinion. For instance, late-term abortions are deeply unpopular among Democrats, with only 22 percent expressing support for abortion through the whole pregnancy.
This stat is often batted around as evidence that pro-life leanings might make a difference in who Democrats elect. Yet what respondents tell pollsters they’d prefer, all other things being equal, is a far cry from indicating what citizens are likely to do in the voting booth.
In Polls, Weak Support for Strong Restrictions
How do I know? Past performance is the best indicator of future results. Look at the politicians Democrats have voted into office. Of Democrat U.S. senators and representatives, 81 percent have a 100 percent rating from the abortion organization NARAL, as of 2017.
A majority of Americans elected Barack Obama president twice, who was a pro-choice as they come, if not overly vocal about it. The entire lineup of major Democratic candidates supports abortion up to birth with the exception of Tulsi Gabbard, who still supports about 97 percent of abortions.
But if you need more evidence, a variety of more appropriately worded and contextualized polling responses severely weaken the contention that Americans’ widespread preference for “significant restrictions” will make a difference on election day.
These broadly-favored restrictions aren’t as “significant” as pro-lifers would have us believe. Ninety-one percent of abortions are committed in the first trimester, and 98.7 percent occur before the age of viability outside the womb, according to the Centers for Disease Control. If the public favors broad legality for first-trimester abortions, that would devastate the belief that harnessing the power of the majority will eventually majorly curtail abortion.
Polling on the legality of abortion by trimester or “in all or most cases” (which implies first-trimester abortions), then, is the gold standard for examining what the public really thinks about abortion. According to Gallup, in 2018 60 percent of respondents said abortions should “generally be legal” in the first three months of pregnancy, although when asked if it should be legal to abort in the first trimester “for any reason,” support drops to 45 percent (notably up from 41 percent 15 years ago), while 53 percent thought it should be illegal.
However, only 36 percent of respondents said they would favor a state law that would “ban all abortions except those necessary to save the life of the mother.” That’s a 17-point difference, probably due to the resistance to banning abortion in cases of rape and incest (75 percent believe it should be legal)—a position many pro-lifers embrace as a practical matter but contradicts the fundamental pro-life belief that killing innocent human life is unjust.
More recent results from Gallup reveal 53 percent believe abortion should be legal “under certain circumstances” (as compared to “any circumstances”). A stronger result comes from last year’s polling from Pew Research Center, however. It shows 61 percent of respondents support legal abortion in “all or most cases,” compared to 38 percent who say it should be illegal in all or most cases.
“Most cases” certainly implies first-trimester abortions. You could be the least informed citizen in the country and still grasp that the vast majority of abortions are done early in pregnancy and for reasons unrelated to health.
Gallup has also found that respondents disfavored overturning Roe v. Wade 60 percent to 33 percent. Many polling respondents apparently don’t know Roe v. Wade allows no restrictions on the “right to choose” in the first trimester, a good indication they don’t care enough about the issue to get a hold of the facts.
Further confusing matters, only 50 percent of respondents were willing to say abortion “in general” is “morally wrong.” It stands in contrast to Anderson’s claim that most Americans think “it is fundamentally unjust to intentionally kill an innocent human being.”
Polling, if anything, reveals that Americans are confused, conflicted, and ignorant about abortion. The most appropriate measures of abortion opinion—chiefly, opinions on the legality of first-trimester abortion—don’t indicate pro-life attitudes will prevail come election day, or will even register.
Ultimately, if the pro-life movement wants to insist their education campaigns are making a difference in elections and ultimately policy, they have to show that there’s been a shift in voter behavior on the issue. Declaring pro-lifers “have the majority” on abortion is as wishful as thinking storks are baby-friendly.
Bad News: Voters Have Other Priorities
While abortion is considered “very or extremely important” to nearly two-thirds of voters, it is not a priority for the 2020 presidential election. At 64 percent, abortion ranks behind a slew of other economic and social issues: health care (81 percent), terrorism and national security (80 percent), immigration (74 percent), and a host of others, including infrastructure, gun policy, race relations, and taxes.
The GOP base is pro-life. But Democrats’ base is fervently pro-abortion, and the base decides primaries. So-called “moderate” or “pro-life” Democrats don’t hold any power, particularly on the national level. A look at the official Democrat Party platform, which explicitly opposes efforts “to impede a woman’s access to safe and legal abortion,” is enough to confirm that fact.
If you’re banking on Independents to make the difference in the 2020 general election, only a quarter of them rank abortion as “extremely important,” behind health care, the economy, climate change, and gun policy, among other issues. Fifty-six percent of Independents believe abortion should be legal “under certain circumstances” and 24 percent believe it should be legal in all circumstances. Forty-eight percent of them consider themselves pro-choice compared to 44 percent pro-life.
The bottom line: If the abortion issue decides the next president, it probably won’t be Donald Trump.
Conventional Wisdom Is Failing Pro-lifers
The false perception that pro-lifers can harness the power of the majority—at least on second- and third-trimester abortion—exposes a reasoning flaw. Like Anderson, many pro-lifers operate on the premise abortion moderates have more in common with pro-lifers than with supporters of full-term abortion. Given the genuine revulsion both groups show for late-term abortion (generally considered post-viability, about 22 weeks) when it makes headlines, they can’t wrap their heads around how Democrat candidates can hold such radical positions when so many Democrats disagree with them.
Nearly half a century after Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement has barely achieved any serious restrictions on abortion.
As I wrote previously: “If abortion is acceptable [to the voter] on some level, then it is not hard to stretch a tacit blessing over all forms of abortion to protect popular entitlement programs, increase federal education spending, combat climate change, or whatever other policy positions are more important to the voter. For ‘moderate’ pro-choicers, it’s not an all or nothing moral issue; it’s some, or some more.”
To tout widespread opposition to “radical” positions like third-trimester abortions “for any reason” as evidence that Democrat candidates are “out of step” with the American people is to exaggerate to the point of inaccuracy. The space between an abortion “moderate” and an abortion “radical” is miniscule, since both deny that intentional killing of preborn life is unjust. The space between abortion “moderate” and abortion opponent, on the other hand, is a vast chasm. It requires conversion, not affirmation.
As inconvenient as this information is to pro-lifers, it needs to be said. The end of abortion in America is not going to come by drumming up attention for massive pro-life marches or slight shifts in results from biased poll questions. It won’t come by insisting that “the people are on our side” or that Americans “overwhelmingly support abortion restrictions,” as if opposing only the murder of more developed preborn babies is some sort of great moral triumph that will turn the tide in abortion policy. It isn’t.
Nearly half a century after Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement has barely achieved any serious restrictions on abortion. Trying to gather a majority doesn’t seem to be working, and if pro-lifers want to end legal abortion, they can’t afford to ignore the facts.
Photo U.S. Air Force photo by Karen Abeyasekere