Why are we becoming more liberal on homosexuality but not abortion?

People view a display of images at the University of Maine Monday, April 9, 2012. A group called the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, protesting abortion, displayed images it calls the Genocide Awareness Project.
People view a display of images at the University of Maine Monday, April 9, 2012. A group called the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, protesting abortion, displayed images it calls the Genocide Awareness Project.
Posted May 26, 2012, at 6:15 a.m.

According to the latest Gallup polls, public opinion on issues of sexual and reproductive freedom has become steadily more liberal.

In 1977, Americans were evenly split on whether gay sex should be legal. Now they support its legality by a 2-to-1 ratio. In 1996, the country opposed same-sex marriage by 68 to 27 percent. Now it’s a dead heat. In 2002, a 50-to-45-percent plurality said it was morally wrong to have a baby outside of marriage. Now a 54-to-42-percent majority says it’s acceptable.

Birth control, as an issue of private morality, is a nonissue: 89 percent of Americans say it’s OK.

On issue after issue, the polls have moved to the left. But not on abortion. In 1995, Gallup found that 56 percent of Americans identified themselves as pro-choice, while 33 percent identified themselves as pro-life. That gap closed within three years, zigzagged a bit, and by last year stood at 49 to 45 percent, a narrow pro-choice plurality. In this month’s poll, however, 50 percent of respondents call themselves pro-life. Only 41 percent call themselves pro-choice.

Advocates of abortion rights, responding to the Gallup report, point out that calling yourself pro-life doesn’t mean you support every restriction. The “vast majority of Americans continues to support legal abortion in all or certain circumstances,” observes NARAL Pro-choice America, adding that “other independent polling shows little change.” NARAL cites data from the Pew Research Center showing that most Americans still think abortion should be legal in most cases. Planned Parenthood offers the same rebuttal: “A majority of Americans still believe abortion should remain a safe and legal medical procedure for a woman to consider if and when she needs it, and these fundamental views have held steady for more than a decade.”

But that’s the puzzle. At best, support for abortion is barely holding its ground, way below support for contraception, while approval of gay sex and gay marriage are soaring. Something about abortion continues to alienate people who are willing to take a more liberal view of birth control and homosexuality. What is it?

Pro-choice groups see abortion as an issue of women’s rights, reproductive freedom and respecting privacy. But look at long-term data from the General Social Survey, a multi-decade project of the National Opinion Research Center. The survey shows that over the past 40 years, public opinion has shifted in the pro-choice direction on all three of those themes. And yet, contrary to the pro-choice inference, it hasn’t shifted on abortion.

From 1972 to 2006, the percentage of survey respondents who said premarital sex was “not wrong at all” rose from 28 to 46. The percentage who said gay sex was “not wrong at all” tripled, from 11 to 32 percent. And from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s — the years during which the survey asked about women’s rights — opinions moved clearly to the left.

The percentage of respondents who approved of a married woman earning money even if her husband could support her increased by 15 points. The percentage who disagreed that women should stay home and let men run the country rose by 20 points. The percentage who said it was OK for a wife to refuse to have children even if her husband wanted them also increased by 15 points. Eighty-two percent of respondents took that position, affirming a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions.

But the abortion numbers didn’t follow. From the 1970s to 2006, the percentage of General Social Survey respondents who said it should be possible for a woman to get a legal abortion shifted two points to the left in cases where the woman “wants it for any reason,” six points to the right in cases of a “strong chance of serious defect in the baby,” and seven points to the right in cases where the family “cannot afford any more children.” By 2006, the last year these questions were asked, only a minority supported legal abortion in the “any reason” or “can’t afford” scenarios.

The British Social Attitudes survey shows the same pattern. From the 1980s to the 2000s, public opinion shifted 20 points to the left on premarital sex, 22 points to the left on gay sex, 24 points to the left on whether women should stay home to care for young children, 27 points to the left on whether wives should leave breadwinning to their husbands, and 30 points to the left on whether lesbian couples deserved equal adoption rights. But it shifted 12 points to the right on abortion “if there is a strong chance of a serious defect in the baby” and 13 points to the right on abortion if the family “cannot afford any more children.”

Polls don’t settle what’s right and wrong. But they do challenge our assumptions about the structure of beliefs. When public opinion turns toward gay marriage without abandoning fidelity and family formation, it calls into question our fear that extending marriage to same-sex couples threatens the institution.

And when public opinion turns toward reproductive freedom and equal rights for women but continues to oppose abortion, it punctures our dismissal of pro-life sentiment as a vestige of right-wing sexism. Spin and sound bites won’t make the evidence go away. Sooner or later, you’ll have to face it.

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