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The Big Hole in the "Pro-Life" Tilt

There's a bit of a buzz going on in Cultural Right circles about a new Pew survey that shows the percentage of Americans who want to outlaw "all" or "most" abortions has recently increased. Actually, to the extent that there's a shift, it's from the percentage that want to keep "most" abortions legal to those who want to make "most" illegal--Pew's only allowable range of views for those in the "mushy middle" of abortion policy. This produces a shift from a 54-41 margin for "legal" versus "illegal" on abortion in August of 2008 to a 46-44 margin today.

Now you can take this seriously as a "shift" in public opinion on abortion, treat it as an outlier, or reflect on the small gap that may separate those "mostly" respondents who are consigned to opposed camps.

But I'd make a very different argument: all these categorical classifications of voter attitudes towards legalized abortion ignore what could be the trumping argument: the "why" issue.

Voters care a lot about "why" a woman seeks an abortion, and much of the evidence suggests that many people who disapprove of abortion as an abstract proposition become pretty pro-choice when actual abortions involving actual women are at issue. The most important finding in relatively recent polling on abortion was a 2003 ABC survey, during the height of the congressional fight over so-called "partial-birth abortion," that showed over 60% of Americans favoring a "health exception" to a ban on even these much-hyped and demonized procedures. More anecdotally, the public reaction to John McCain's mocking reference to the "health exception" in a 2008 debate with Barack Obama was quite negative.

McCain was simply reflecting the commonly-held belief in anti-abortion circles that the "health exception" makes any putative abortion bans irrelevant. If they are right, and if the evidence that a significant majority of Americans favor a "health exception" is right, then it may not much matter what people tell pollsters about their bedrock convictions on abortion. If those who want to make "most abortions" illegal in the abstract are willing to make "most abortions" legal if there's a plausible reason for them, then the presumed "conservative shift" on abortion may be almost completely illusory.