The Evolution of Public Opinion on Abortion

As we’ve seen earlier, it’s not actually true that abortion restrictions are becoming more popular. It’s a bit hard to give a concise description of what public opinion on abortion is saying (people have murky views) but it seems to have been very constant over time. Yesterday’s op-ed from Andrew Gelman and John Sides adds two additional interesting facts into the mix. One is that the partisan divide over abortion rights is pretty new:

Throughout the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, there was little difference among Democrats, Independents and Republicans in their views of abortion. In 1990, 40% of Democrats and 33% of Republicans said that “By law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice,” according to data from the National Election Studies. But since 1992, the parties have diverged, and by 2004, that 3-point gap had increased to 19 points: more Democrats (44%) but fewer Republicans (25%) agreed with that statement.

The other is that voters generally aren’t especially interested in abortion:

Half the people surveyed at the beginning of the 2008 campaign described abortion as “extremely” or “very” important in their voting decision – but this was less than the 66% who cared this much about the environment, the 67% who felt that illegal immigration was important, the 83% who felt this way about education, and the 93% who declared the economy to be an important issue. And this survey was conducted in June, a couple of months before the stock market meltdown. When asked what single issue was most important, only 6% of people surveyed named abortion.

It continues to be a bit baffling how dominated debates about judicial appointments are by abortion-related questions. It’s an important issue, but the Supreme Court deals with a lot of important issues. And the driving force behind the abortion-centricity of the arguments doesn’t seem to be overwhelming public interest in the subject.