NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Christian Examiner) -- Headlines claiming America is tilting pro-choice have caused some to dig deeper into the data and look at what's really going on behind the statistical wall when it comes to one of the country's most critical -- and divisive -- issues.
The pro-choice result should be weighed against the rest of the story.
The same Gallup poll that showed an uptick in the percentage of U.S. adults who call themselves pro-choice also showed that a majority of Americans – 55 percent – believe abortion should be either illegal all the time or legal only in a "few circumstances."
The survey was trumpeted by abortion rights groups because for the first time in seven years, the pro-choice position hit 50 percent and held what Gallup labeled a "statistically significant" lead over the pro-life side (44 percent).
But a Christian Examiner analysis of not only the May 29 Gallup survey but also polling from other organizations shows that however Americans choose to label themselves, their specific beliefs on the issue of abortion tilt pro-life – and have been for at least the past 20 years.
Pro-life groups say the trend is due not only to pro-life legislation but also to ultrasound technology and a successful campaign spotlighting the horrors and reality of late-term abortions.
The dispute over the Gallup data comes as a new Associated Press survey showed that the percentage of abortions nationwide has decreased by 12 percent since 2010. The rate, in fact, was down in nearly all states.
In the Gallup survey, 19 percent of Americans say they believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances and 36 percent say it should be legal only in a "few circumstances" – a combined total of 55 percent. That's down slightly from what it was last year (58 percent) but virtually identical to what it has been the past decade. It also was 55 percent in November 2005.
"While on the surface, it looks like more Americans are self-identifying as pro-choice than pro-life, when you look at the split in what exactly they favor, those numbers tell a different story," said Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America. "Americans may be misidentifying themselves when it comes to the matter of abortion since a majority clearly support significant restrictions on abortion."
Other surveys, too, show that Americans favor more abortion restrictions.
A CBS News poll in March of this year found that 59 percent of Americans believe abortion either should either be "not permitted" (25 percent) or "available under stricter limits" (34 percent). It surveyed 1,023 adults.
Similarly, a CNN poll in January and February of 2014 showed that 20 percent of Americans say abortion should be "always illegal" and 51 percent say it should be "sometimes legal." That latter category would include those who believe in exceptions for rape and incest. CNN polled 1,010 adults.
Hawkins added that Students for Life no longer asks students whether they are pro-life or pro-choice.
"They don't know what the labels mean," Hawkins said. "Instead we ask if they support legal abortion or how long into a pregnancy they tolerate abortion."
Pro-life politicians may take a hit in the mainstream media by pushing pro-life legislation, but survey after survey shows that Americans back such bills – and that the proposals change attitudes.
For example, the House of Representatives passed a bill in 2013 that would have banned abortion starting at 20 weeks – when the baby can feel pain. It made exceptions for rape and incest but was still widely panned in the media, which spotlighted Texas state senator Wendy Davis' filibuster of a state-level bill. Yet a Quinnipiac University survey in November 2014 showed 60 percent of registered voters supported the House proposal.
Likewise, the debate over partial-birth abortion in the 1990s made a difference. In September 1994, months prior to Congress debating a partial-birth bill, 33 percent of Americans said they supported legal abortion "under any circumstances," according to a Gallup survey. Less than four years later, after President Clinton had vetoed such a ban, that percentage had plummeted to 23 percent. In fact, it has reached 30 percent since then only once – and hasn't come close to 33.
Similarly, the partial-birth abortion debate also had a dramatic change on how Americans label themselves. In September 1994, prior to discussion of the partial-birth abortion ban in the House, the pro-choice position led by 23 points among all adults, 56-33 percent. Two years later, with the discussion on the bill on America's front-burner, the pro-choice lead had plummeted to three points, 47-44 percent.
Partial-birth abortion involved partially delivering a late-term unborn baby, feet first, until only the head remained in the birth canal. The base of the head was then stabbed, and the brain suctioned, instantly killing the child. President George W. Bush signed a bill banning it, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it.
Hawkins said pro-lifers are winning the political and cultural battle over abortion.
"As this pro-life generation continues to mature and technology continues to advance, more and more Americans will come to realize the great human tragedy of abortion," she said.
The Gallup poll surveyed 1,024 adults.