Pro-Choice, Pro-Life or … Both?

Daniel A. Cox November 29, 2022

American attitudes on abortion are complicated. You don’t have to take my word for it. In the August 2022 American Perspectives Survey, more than half of Americans (53 percent) said abortion was a complicated issue. Fewer (45 percent) said the issue was simple and straightforward. However, in much of the public discussion on abortion nuanced perspectives are lost in favor of easy explanations and simplistic narratives. This was the subject of a recent American Storylines newsletter, which discussed the limits of abortion polling to reveal what people really think about the issue. 

Polls play a crucial role in our debates over public policy. They reveal to journalists, elected officials, and policymakers the public’s preferred policy outcome, as well as how important certain issues are to them. They are an indispensable resource for those seeking to represent the collected public will. But they can also be used to oversimplify complex views on complex subjects. On no other public policy question are the limitations of polling more evident than on abortion. One of the most dramatic examples of this shortcoming can be found in Gallup’s question about abortion identity. The question requires respondents to identify either as “Pro-life” or “Pro-choice.” It suggests that Americans are evenly and intractably divided over abortion. 

For most of the last 20 years, Gallup’s polling has found that nearly identical numbers of Americans identify as pro-choice and pro-life. More recently, pro-choice identity increased in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade. But these categories bear only a passing resemblance to how people feel about the issue. 

The problem with binary choices on complex topics like abortion is that it offers a skewed reflection of actual preferences. Such dichotomies force people into opposing camps when in reality their views may not be that far apart. Many Americans who claim the pro-choice label believe abortion should be legal while expressing some moral misgivings and supporting limits on availability. Similarly, many Americans who identify as pro-life believe abortion should be permitted, just with significant restrictions.  

Using a new approach to measure abortion identity, our research reveals that few Americans exclusively identify as either pro-choice or pro-life. The August American Perspective Survey finds that one in three (33 percent) Americans say that the label “pro-choice” describes them somewhat or very well, but that “pro-life” does not. Roughly one in four (26 percent) Americans say the opposite—that the pro-life label describes them, but not the pro-choice label. A plurality of Americans embrace both labels (33 percent) or reject them completely (9 percent). If given the opportunity, many Americans reject the binary categories.  

This holds even if we break the responses down by political party. Only about half of Democrats and Republicans identify exclusively with one label or other. Fifty-two percent of Democrats identify as pro-choice exclusively while an identical number (52 percent) of Republicans identify as only pro-life. More than one in three (36 percent) Democrats and 28 percent of Republicans say that both labels describe them at least somewhat well.  

It is probably inevitable that the pro-choice and pro-life labels will endure as part of the ongoing debate about the legality of abortion. However, these labels inadequately capture the nuanced and often conflicted feelings Americans have about abortion. This is best illustrated by the fact that for many people being “pro-life” and “pro-choice” is not only possible, but preferable. 

Survey Reports

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