Americans have become markedly less supportive of legal abortion since President Obama's election, with the country now almost evenly split on the contentious issue.
Whereas in 2007 and 2008, abortion-rights supporters outnumbered opponents by a 54-to-40 percent margin, today the margin is a slim 47-45 percent in favor of keeping abortion legal in most or all cases.
At the same time views in both camps appear to be hardening -- a trend that runs counter to Obama's longstanding desire to find common ground on the issue.
The shift is not too surprising given the election of a pro-choice president after two terms of a pro-life president, George W. Bush. Pro-choice forces were galvanized by the challenge Bush posed, and a similar dynamic seems to be occurring now, with religion proving to be an especially potent factor in rallying opponents of abortion.
On the other hand, far fewer Americans believe abortion is a critical issue -- just 15 percent, down from 28 percent in 2006.
In addition, opinions on the morality of abortion are unchanged: In 2006, just over half of Americans, 52 percent, agreed that abortion is morally wrong, with 12 percent saying it was "morally acceptable" and 23 percent saying it was not a moral issue. In 2009, the same percentage of Americans, 52 percent, said it was morally wrong, while 10 percent said it was morally acceptable, and 25 percent said it was not a moral issue.
The data is found in a new, large-scale survey from the Pew Forum
that offers a complex portrait of Americans' often conflicting views on abortion rights, but one that will provide ammunition for all sides in the ongoing battles over abortion, especially as it relates to health care reform.
The most notable figure to emerge from the survey is that 47 percent of Americans now favor keeping abortion legal in most or all cases while 45 percent say it should be illegal in most or all cases. That is a major shift since 2007 and 2008, when polls showed pro-choice opinion outpaced pro-life opinion 54-40 percent.
The decline in support for legal abortion was seen in almost all categories, with Democratic support for abortion rights declining by 4 points, and twice that among Democratic men. Support dropped 9 percent among independents, and more among Republicans, and across all religious and ethnic cohorts. Only young adults, African-Americans, and the religiously unaffiliated -- Obama's strongest supporters -- remained unchanged in their views.
But the biggest shift came among conservative Republicans and began right after Obama's inauguration.
"Conservative Republicans in particular say they believe President Obama is going to go too far in supporting abortion rights. They also say that they're less willing to compromise than they have been in past and they are more certain of the correctness of their own views," said Gregory Smith, a senior researcher for Pew who worked on the study, which involved interviews with more than 4,000 adults in April and August.
"On the left what you see is a real relaxation in terms of the importance people attach to this issue." Smith noted that in 2006, nearly a third of liberal Democrats said abortion was "a critical issue facing the country." Today, fewer than one in 10 believe it is a critical issue. "So you've got this hardening on the right and this real decline on the left in the importance people attach to the issue," Smith said.
Religion also appears to be a larger factor than ever, and may be due in part to the particularly strong rhetoric against Obama's abortion views from many Catholic and evangelical leaders since his election.
While polling has always shown a "God gap" in views on abortion, with regular worshipers most opposed to legalization, the latest survey shows major shifts among weekly churchgoers, with support for legalized abortion down 12 points among regularly attending mainline Protestants, down 10 points among regular Catholic Massgoers, and down 8 points among churchgoing white evangelicals.
"That is consistent with what you'd expect if these regular attenders were internalizing these [pro-life] messages," Smith said. (Interestingly, the largest drop in support for abortion rights was among white evangelicals who rarely attend, which may indicate eroding support for Obama among working class Red State voters.)
The intensity of the abortion debate has certainly taken on an almost religious passion. The Pew poll shows that 42 percent of pro-choice respondents say they do not consider the opposing position a "respectable" opinion to hold, and 47 percent of pro-life respondents said the opposing pro-choice view was not a respectable opinion to hold. At the same time, fewer people (26 percent) say they have ever doubted their views on the issue.
"It really drives home the polarizing nature of this issue," Smith said.
At the same time, there remains a remarkable degree of middle ground between the poles, even if that middle way -- which Obama says he wants to find -- is rarely followed.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) agree that it would be good to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S., which echoes Obama's way of approaching the issue. That figure is up from 59 percent in 2005. Support for reducing abortion is especially strong among Republicans (73 percent), white evangelicals (78 percent) and weekly worshipers (72 percent), which also happen to be the groups most opposed to Obama.
Moreover, 60 percent of Americans say there is a need to find middle ground on the issue, with 29 percent saying there should be no compromise, a figure that is unchanged since 2006.
Also, Americans continue to have nuanced views of abortion, with about 30 percent saying it should be legal in most cases and almost the same percentage saying it should be illegal in most cases. The numbers on either side -- always legal or always illegal -- remain about 16-17 percent each.
In fact, it is striking that since 1995, the number of Americans saying abortion should be illegal in all cases has fluctuated in various polls from 12 to 20 percent, but is virtually unchanged today at 17 percent. The real shift, from 27 percent in 1995 to 16 percent today, is among those who say abortion should be legal in all cases. The switchers have not joined the pro-life camp, but appear to have bolstered the category of those who respond "don't know."
So is there any prospect for real change, or the kind of compromise Obama wants to find?
The good news for both sides may be in the survey's finding that four in 10 Americans are "unaware of Obama's position on the abortion issue." That's a lot of people who could be convinced.
But that's also the bad news, or at least the unsettling news: despite the constant coverage of the issue, and its importance, some 40 percent of the electorate is "unaware" of Obama's stand on the issue.