Many 'Pro-Life' Americans Support Legal Abortion Rights, As 'Pro-Choice' Group Reaches Record Low

 @ashleyportero on May 23 2012 1:56 PM

Only four in 10 Americans identify themselves as pro-choice when it comes to support for abortion rights, according to a new Gallup poll, the lowest figure recorded by the organization since it began asking the question in 1995.

But even as Americans have shunned the pro-choice label, it seems to say little about their actual support for legal abortion rights. Fifty-two percent of the poll's 1,024 respondents said they believe abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, a slight uptick from the 50 percent who professed that standing in May 2011.

Shift Occurs After Year of Political Chaos Surrounding Reproductive Issues

A solid half of the nation now considers itself pro-life, according to the poll, only one point shy of the record-high 51 percent recorded in May 2009. The political and media focus on abortion and reproductive rights over the past year may have had a hand in the increased number of Americans who say they have moral objections to abortion rights.

From a congressional onslaught against Planned Parenthood -- which aimed to both eliminate federal funding for the non-profit, as well as investigate the group's financial practices -- to the ongoing conflict between the U.S. Roman Catholic church and the Obama administration over mandated health insurance coverage for contraception, women's reproductive rights have been a constant part of the political debate going into the 2012 election.  

But, while attempts to roll back access to abortion and contraception services -- in particular, the morning-after pill, which is often incorrectly identified as an abortion pill -- are associated almost exclusively with Republicans, Gallup reports the decline in pro-choice views was seen across the political spectrum.

Pro-Life Tilt Crosses Partisan Lines

Although about 60 percent of Democrats have consistently identified themselves as pro-choice since 2001 (aside from May of last year, when it reached a record 68 percent), the percentage of political independents who claim that label has fallen by 10 points since May 2011. It is only the second time since 2011 pro-lifers have outnumbered pro-choicers in this coveted political swing group.

A majority of Republicans have consistently taken the pro-life position since 2001, a margin that Gallup reports is continuing to grow:  Now, 72 percent of self-identified Republicans call themselves pro-life, up from 68 percent last May. Only 22 percent consider themselves to be pro-choice.

While it's unclear as to whether controversies have directly influenced Americans' shift toward a pro-life identification, it's worth noting that the label has not actually affected the general public support for legal abortion rights. Since 2001, at least half of Americans have unfailingly said abortion should be legal under certain circumstances. Plus, even as more call themselves pro-life, their fundamental view about the morality of the issue has held steady:  About 51 percent of respondents recently said they believe abortion is morally wrong, while 38 percent said it is acceptable, nearly identical to results recorded over the past two years.

Are Young Americans Responsible For The Shift?

Polling shows that young voters do not usually prioritize abortion rights when they head to the polls. Those who do are likely anti-abortion voters, which may account for the intensity gap on abortion, according to Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the nation's oldest abortion-rights advocacy group.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Keenan revealed that she plans to step down from her post at the end of  the year specifically because of that gap. Keenan hopes that a newer, younger leader will be able to connect with millennial voters -- the generation of Americans born between 1980 and 1991 -- and inspire the kind of enthusiasm for the pro-choice movement that has been waning since the 1970's.

State Legislatures passed a record 92 abortion restrictions in 2011, according to the Guttmacher Institute, more than any other year since Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court 1973 verdict that legalized abortion. Keenan said the prevalence of anti-abortion legislation is indicative of the need to make sure reproductive rights are actually a voting issue for millennials, who are expected to make up about 40 percent of the electorate by 2020.

The issue has got to be a voting issue for them, Keenan said, if we want to continue protecting abortion rights in this country, this is so clearly the case.

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