How anti-abortion intensity wins in pro-choice America

For four decades, American public opinion on the issue of abortion has been largely unchanged. As the numbers from Gallup, the Pew Research Center, and other polls show, roughly half of Americans have identified themselves as “pro-choice” even as consistent majorities support keeping abortion legal in all or many circumstances.
But now, a new survey conducted for Vox by the communications and strategy firm, PerryUndem, revealed that for Americans abortion is “not so black and white.” Where past polls found a public bitterly divided over the legality of abortion, the Vox survey found nuanced views and surprising common ground. When questions moved “beyond legality and into [the] reality” of the abortion experience for American women, a much different picture emerged.

Nearly four in 10 respondents said they were “neither” (21 percent) or “both” pro-choice and pro-life. Just changing the wording from “abortion should be

in almost all cases” to “women should have a legal right to safe and accessible abortion in almost all cases” produced a 9-point jump in approval. Even more important, when the 1,067 adults were asked about what a woman’s actual abortion experience should be like, using terms like “comfortable,” “supportive,” “without pressure,” “non-judgmental,” “affordable,” “informed by medically-accurate information,” or “without added burdens,” the transformation was even more dramatic. As ThinkProgress summed it up:

A large majority of respondents–at least 69 percent–said “yes” for each of those descriptors, suggesting there’s consensus about how Americans want women to be treated after they choose to seek an abortion. This aspect of Undem’s polling is “really groundbreaking,” according to [Kate] Stewart [of Advocates for Youth].

But while PerryUndem further found that Americans were unfamiliar with just how common abortion is (one in three women have terminated a pregnancy by age 45) and that support for women’s reproductive rights was much higher among those who had talked to someone experiencing the procedure, in one area the survey shed little new light.
If support for women’s safe and legal access to abortion is surprisingly broad, why are anti-abortion extremists enjoying even more surprising success at the ballot box?

In a nutshell, the answer is intensity. Anti-abortion voters simply care more about erasing women’s reproductive rights than their supporters do about preserving them. And in some regions of the country and in off-year elections, that difference in motivation, commitment, activism, and turnout makes all the difference.

Continue reading below about when anti-abortion intensity trumps pro-choice propensity.

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