This past weekend, Marist released the results of a poll which found a substantial increase in pro-life sentiment. This poll was conducted in mid-February and found that 47 percent of respondents identified as “pro-life” and 47 percent of respondents identified as “pro-choice.” This is the first Marist poll since 2009 which found that as many or more Americans have identified as “pro-life” as “pro-choice.” More importantly, these results were in stark contrast to a January Marist poll, which showed “pro-choice” outpolling “pro-life” by an seventeen-point margin (55 percent to 38 percent). Interestingly, much of the gain in pro-life sentiment during the past month took place among self-identified Democrats and respondents under the age of 45.
Usually public attitudes toward sanctity of life issues tends to be pretty stable. As such, there are reasons for skepticism when the media reports substantial shifts in public opinion. For instance, based on differences in either methodology or question wording, some polls consistently find that a relatively high percentage of respondents identify as “pro-life.” For instance, polls taken by Gallup typically find a higher level of “pro-life” sentiment than Rasmussen polls. However, since these two recent Marist polls were conducted by the same firm and used similar wording – there is reason to believe there has been a real shift in public sentiment. Furthermore, another poll released by Fox News last week also showed a gain, albeit smaller, in the percentage of Americans who identify as “pro-life.”
It appears that efforts by Democrats in New York and Virginia to strengthen legal protections for late-term abortions have affected the way many Americans view the issue. Indeed, these polls add to a body of survey research data which finds that public attitudes toward abortion are impacted by current events. Most observers agree that the 1990s debate about banning partial birth abortion resulted in a long term and durable reduction in the percentage of people who identified as “pro-choice.” Additionally, multiple surveys showed the “war on women” rhetoric used by President Obama and other Democrats in 2012 caused a small decline in “pro-life” sentiment. However, the publicity surrounding the trial of notorious late term abortionist Kermit Gosnell in 2013 helped pro-lifers make up the ground they lost in 2012.
The recent Marist poll also shows strong opposition to late term abortion. Specifically, the Marist poll found that 71 percent of respondents oppose abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. This is consistent with other polls taken on the issue this month. This shows that, pro-lifers need to make sure that late-term abortions are a salient issue going forward. The Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act is certainly a good idea. However, this is an issue that needs to be raised over and over again. Overall, shifts in public opinion are not enough. No politician, Republican or Democrat, is likely to stop their advocacy for, or continue remaining silent in the face of, late term abortion until it starts hurting them politically.
Michael J. New is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.