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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. 

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