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Is America really a ‘pro-choice nation’?

Abortion-rights proponents claim majority support but a similar number identify as pro-life

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Anti-abortion rights demonstrators and abortion rights demonstrators rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington.

Anti-abortion rights demonstrators and abortion rights demonstrators rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington on March 4, 2020. As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in a Mississippi case involving abortion rights, a narrative has reemerged in some circles that America is united as a “pro-choice nation.” 

Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in a Mississippi case that could upend abortion rights, a narrative has reemerged that America is united as a “pro-choice nation.” 

This argument was found most recently in an op-ed on CNN’s website. In an essay titled “Why overturning Roe v. Wade would be a disaster for conservatives,” Jill Filipovic described abortion as “a matter of basic health care” and cited findings from a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll in asserting “Despite political treatment of abortion as a contentious partisan issue, the truth is that America is a pro-choice nation.”

Filipovic’s voice is not one that can be easily dismissed. She has a sizable social media following and having been a senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine and the author of “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk, How My Generation Got Left Behind,” she established herself as something of a spokeswoman for young feminists.

Boomers can remember when using the words “senior political writer” and “Cosmopolitan magazine” in the same sentence would have been fodder for a stand-up routine. But let’s set that aside to consider the central idea: Is it true that America is a “pro-choice nation”?

To make her case, Filipovic highlights the ABC/Washington Post findings that a majority of Americans say that the decision to abort should be between a woman and her doctor, not the state. The poll also found majority support (60%) for Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion.

But a closer look at the numbers by political affiliation shows that overwhelming enthusiasm for Roe is only found among Democrats, 82% of whom support Roe.

Independents, at 58%, are closer to Republicans (42%) on the subject than they are to Democrats. And they are equidistant from both parties when it comes to seeing Roe overturned: 28% of independents would like Roe overturned, compared to 45% of Republicans and 11% of Democrats.

The bigger problem with “pro-choice America” cheerleading, however, is that when Americans are asked specifically to identify themselves as “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” they are, in fact, almost equally divided.

While Gallup touted a “record-high” percentage of Americans who consider abortion morally acceptable earlier this year, the difference between the nays and yeas was all of 1 percentage point. (Forty-seven percent said abortion is morally permissible; 46% said it is not.) In the same survey, 49% percent of Americans self-identified as pro-choice compared to 47% as pro-life. A two-point advantage doesn’t make for a “pro-choice nation.”

Nor was the 2021 poll aberrant.

According to Gallup: “Since 1998, an average 47% of U.S. adults have considered themselves pro-choice and 46% pro-life. Between 1995 and 1997, the public tilted more pro-choice (52%) than pro-life (38%), on average.”

In other words, the narrative might as easily be: the American public is more pro-life now than we were a quarter-century ago. This is a truth not often reported in part because journalists have long been instructed not to use the terms “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” but instead to write about “abortion-rights supporters” and “abortion opponents.” There’s a good reason for this — doing otherwise implies that abortion-rights supporters are against life in general, or that abortion opponents are against moral agency. There are, in fact, many good and moral people on opposite sides of this debate.

But this nomenclature can also lead to confusion, such as believing America is a pro-choice nation, when clearly the picture is far more messy. What we are is a quarrelsome, but well-meaning mass of people who fundamentally disagree on whether abortion is health care or homicide.