Americans Heart Gay Marriage, Divide on Abortion, Hate Labels

While more Americans embrace marriage equality for LGBT couples, more also refuse to label themselves as "pro-choice". What gives?

Last month, Phyllis Schlafly, the right wing's anti-feminist, anti-gay grande dame, crowed to an audience at George Washington University that, on the issue of abortion rights, "we're winning." And indeed the right, working through state legislatures, has chalked up significant wins in its quest to make abortion inaccessible -- proposing and imposing new restrictions on a woman's right to an abortion, as well as coercive and shaming tactics, such as mandatory, costly and medically unnecessary ultrasound imaging of the fetus. 

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So perhaps it should come as no surprise that media jumped on a polling result this week that seemed to augur badly for the reproductive justice movement: According to the latest Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as "pro-choice" stands at a record low of 41 percent. That's a 6-point drop since last July, and an 11-point drop since 1995 -- enough to excite the media into crafting headlines that cast a pall of gloom on the faces of women's rights advocates.

That result, though, speaks more to a branding problem for the term "pro-choice" than it does to a shift in general support for abortion rights. From the Gallup report:

While Americans' identification as "pro-choice" has waned over the past year, their fundamental views about the morality and legality of abortion have held steady. Half of Americans, 51%, consider abortion morally wrong and 38% say it is morally acceptable -- nearly identical to the results in May 2011.

"I think the most important data is that there is no change in the underlying attitude," Democratic pollster Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners, told AlterNet. "And I think that is a reflection of far more people, frankly, being less interested in labels."

In other words, Lake is saying that the problem for the "pro-choice" brand is that voters don't want to be identified with a brand of any kind when it comes to the issue of abortion.

Looking Beyond the Label

But are they really less interested in labels, or simply more reluctant to claim one that's been under relentless siege by the right?

"No, we know from other data that people are significantly less interested in labels right now, period," Lake said. "[W]e're seeing it in everything -- it has nothing to do with abortion; we're seeing it in lots of different areas -- is that people just don't like labels right now. They think it's divisive, and not reflective of the complications of an issue, gets in the way of solutions." For instance, Lake said, the growing numbers of people who identify as political independents rather than members of a political party is another indicator of the trend toward eschewing labels.

Still, even laying the question of labels aside, a problem remains for reproductive rights advocates: that of the continuing deadlock, that seemingly unmovable 51 percent who view abortion as "morally wrong." As long as the country remains so divided on the question, there's a tendency to see war on women as something intractable.

Lake dismissed my concern over a 6-point increase, since 2001, in the percentage of Americans who view abortion as "morally wrong," saying it was too close to the survey's 4-point margin of error to be worrisome. Likewise, she urged women's rights advocates not to read too much into the dip in self-described pro-choice Americans. "In fact, there's a lot of data that show, when you get at underlying issues like contraception [and] sex're seeing the voters really on the side of the reproductive health movement."

Marriage Equality a Different Story

On the matter of marriage equality, we find none of the stalemate in popular sentiment that we see on abortion. In fact, the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows a surge of acceptance for same-sex marriage; some of it, the Post concludes, attributable to President Barack Obama's endorsement two weeks ago. In fact, more Americans today accept same-sex marriage than they do the moral legitimacy of abortion. From the Washington Post report on the poll:

Overall, 53 percent of Americans say gay marriage should be legal, hitting a high mark in support while showing a dramatic turnaround from just six years ago, when just 36 percent thought it should be legal. Thirty-nine percent, a new low, say gay marriage should be illegal.

The poll also finds that 59 percent of African Americans say they support same-sex marriage, up from an average of 41 percent in polls leading up to Obama's announcement of his new position on the matter. Though statistically significant, it is a tentative result because of the relatively small sample of black voters in the poll.

One probable factor in the shift in public opinion? Some 71 percent of Americans say they have a family member, friend or acquaintance who is gay. Which leads one to wonder, how many Americans would say they know someone who had an abortion? My guess is not many, even though they likely do.

For years, beginning with a petition featured in the first issue of Ms. magazine in 1972, feminists have urged women who have had abortions to come forward and tell their stories. (Ms. reprised the effort in 2006.) A 21st-century version of that campaign would seem to be in order, where women would fearlessly lay claim to their abortion stories via Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest.  

The Tyranny of States' Rights

When you look at the results of national polls on both abortion and marriage equality, you get a clear sense of why the right plays the states' rights game today, just as slave-owning Southerners did two centuries ago. Opponents of equality for women and LGBT people know they can't win a national popular vote on their bigotry and misogyny; the best they could hope for is a draw on women's rights, and a loss, however close, on LGBT rights. That's why the right aims its biggest battles at state legislatures. Now that the Supreme Court is a right-winger's dream, any test of draconian law at the state level may well be sanctioned at the federal level. And if enough Tea Partiers and religious-right types win election to Congress, the law of the land may come to defy overall public opinion.

Just look at the Washington Post poll on marriage equality. It was released just days after North Carolina passed a particularly restrictive amendment to the state constitution that not only banned same-sex marriage, but civil unions and domestic partnerships for both gay and heterosexual couples. In passing such a ballot measure, North Carolina joined another 30 states that have already passed same-sex marriage bans.

Even as the nation remains divided on abortion, a torrent of restrictive legislation aimed at women seeking abortions or the medical facilities that provide them is flooding state legislatures. This year, bills have been introduced for mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking abortion -- some of which demand that the ultrasound technician ask the woman to view the image or listen to the fetal heartbeat -- in 17 state legislatures. Two of those bills have already passed, in Virginia and Arizona.

For advocates of reproductive justice and marriage equality, nothing less than a shift in the balance of power on the Supreme Court will settle the law in their favor.


Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: