A Gallup poll released this week showed that the percentage of Americans who identify as “pro-choice” is at an all-time low of 47 percent, while 50 percent identify as “pro-life.” But does it really matter?
Most Americans still believe abortion should be legal, and the outrage over recent attempted rollbacks of women’s reproductive rights has sparked a new wave of activism among feminists online and off.
The anti-choice movement may be winning on labels, but they’re losing on the issues.
While the decreasing number of Americans who call themselves pro-choice is disheartening to hear—we’re one percentage point lower then the previous record low in 2009—only 20 percent of people polled think abortion should be illegal across the board. Fifty-two percent believe abortion should be legal in some circumstances, and 25 percent believe it should be legal in all cases. And when the polling questions are more nuanced than a simple dichotomous pro-choice/pro-life identification, the answers people give tell a much different story.
Research from the National Latina Institute on Reproductive Health, for example, showed that 74 percent of Latino voters agree that a woman has the right to “make her own personal, private decisions about abortion without politicians interfering.” Sixty-eight percent agreed with the statement, “even though church leaders take a position against abortion, when it comes to the law, I believe it should remain legal.”
And a 2011 study from the Public Religion Research Institute on young people’s attitudes toward abortion shows that asking simply about pro-choice vs. pro-life labels is misleading—43 percent of Americans identify as both. The study also showed that 56 percent of people polled felt abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Basically, when researchers take the time to ask more complicated questions, they get more accurate answers. Reducing the nuance of women’s reproductive health and rights to a political label just minimizes the complexity of the issues and of people’s feelings about them.
Political identification is important, to be sure—headlines about Americans not calling themselves pro-choice is a cultural set back—but what’s more important is beliefs, votes and action. And nothing sends a clearer message about what Americans care about than the current backlash against the anti-choice agenda.
When women across the country raged against the Komen foundation after it tried to break ties with Planned Parenthood, it wasn’t just diehard pro-choice activists behind the action—women across the board were infuriated. And while pro-choice and feminist activists are leading the charge against Republican moves to limit women’s reproductive rights, it’s voters who are making the real difference.
That’s not to say we still don’t have a lot of work to do—the chipping away at reproductive rights through parental consent laws, waiting periods, ultrasound mandates and more is a tremendous problem. Too many Americans think that just because abortion is legal, it’s accessible. These laws (of which there are currently more proposed than ever) make it difficult, and often impossible, for women to access abortion. And when people don’t think the procedure should be available under all circumstances, it’s that much easier to push forward restrictions.
That said, I’m still optimistic. More Americans are taking action and more women are telling their stories of how anti-choice laws negatively affect themselves, their lives and their families. In much the same way polls shouldn’t tell a black-and-white story, our activism shouldn’t either. So perhaps it doesn’t matter if most Americans identify as pro-choice—as long as our activism and votes continue to support women, their health and rights.