Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
So there’s a lot of commentary, and no doubt there will be more, about the just-released Gallup poll showing that people self-identifying as “pro-life” outnumber those calling themselves “pro-choice”, for the first time on record, and by a considerable margin. No doubt the wingers will be beside themselves, given the moral significance they attach to slogans and labels. There are a few things to be said about this, however.
First off, it doesn’t matter who call themselves what – bodily autonomy is a fundamental part of women’s freedom and moral independence, and must be protected regardless of public opinion. Laws trampling women’s freedom are unjustified no matter how many people support them. To the extent that the political balance shifts – or is even seen to shift – the legislative practicalities of safeguarding women’s status as citizens and full moral persons becomes complicated, but that is only a measure of the misogyny of a political system that puts some citizens’ freedom at the hazard of other citizens’ whims and prejudices.
Second, it’s interesting to note that, while the supposed balance between self-identifying pro- and anti-choicers has shifted, the same poll of the very same respondents shows almost no change in opinion on the broad spectrum of options regarding the legality of abortion. (It does show that those holding the extreme anti-freedom position – no abortions ever for anyone – slightly outnumber those holding a full pro-freedom position – abortion legal under all circumstances – also for the first time, and that in general attitudes toward women’s freedom have harshened slightly across each category, but those shifts are only a few percentage points.) So, what has changed is the labels people apply to themselves, not so much what they actually think in practical terms.
Regarding that shift in labels, it strikes me as odd. Gallup is a reputable pollster, and this is a periodical survey they have been doing at intervals for some time. I would normally accept their findings, but this one is clearly anomalous. A shift from 50% pro-choice/44% anti-choice to a balance of 42/51 the other way is a relative shift of 16% in just one year (i.e., the pro-choice position went from up by 7% to down by 9%). It dwarfs the year-to-year shifts at any other point since at least 1995 (the range shown on their graph), and probably longer. That requires an explanation.
The situation becomes more intriguing when you note that, as Gallup discovered:
The percentage of Republicans (including independents who lean Republican) calling themselves “pro-life” rose by 10 points over the past year, from 60% to 70%, while there has been essentially no change in the views of Democrats and Democratic leaners. . . . [A]ll of the increase in pro-life sentiment is seen among self-identified conservatives and moderates; the abortion views of political liberals have not changed.
So: right-wingers have not greatly changed their views on abortion in practical terms, but have shifted considerably toward explicitly identifying themselves as anti-choice. Hmmm . . .
I’ll tentatively float two hypotheses:
First, this is part of the winger backlash. The same sort of thing that is driving gun nuts to stockpile firearms and ammunition so they’ll have something Obama can pry from their cold dead hands, and which is driving anti-government morons to protest the fact that Obama is giving them a tax cut, is also driving anti-sex misogynists to stake out seemingly more-extreme positions on women’s rights: they’re terrified that they’re about to lose the thing that defines them politically, and they are ratcheting up their rhetoric both out of fear and in order to remain relevant. With right-wing and religious groups in a panic over the Republicans’ loss of Congress and the White House, and responding with ever-more-extremist rhetoric on abortion, the public has become superficially polarized. (In a country where you can get thousands of low-tax advocates to join a protest against their own tax cut just by giving it an idiotic name, it’s not surprising you can get misogynists to call themselves “pro-life” if you scream it at them enough.)
Second, this is also part of long-standing winger hypocrisy on abortion. They want to be morally righteous hardliners, but they don’t want major changes in abortion rights because they also avail themselves of that service in considerable (for Catholics, greater than average) numbers. As with many other public policy issues, conservatives retain their far-right rhetoric while gradually accommodating themselves to modern reality. (Remember when “civil unions” was the progressive option for gay rights?*) Now, apparently, among the group that say they are anti-choice, more than half favor legal abortion “under certain circumstances”.
This is not to minimize the importance of these kinds of data, or of shifts, even if only nominal (in the literal sense), between the two broad categories of opinion on women’s freedom. It matters not only that women have a legal right to abortion, but also that it is not constantly under siege by disingenuous and insidious restrictions, and that women are supported in choosing and exercising the options that are right for them. Public opinion is important to all those issues. And this reported shift in opinion, even if it is more superficial than it seems, is evidence both of the continuing right-wing backlash and of the continuing negligible status of women and their moral and civil liberties. The “certain circumstances” the pro-choice misogynists deign to approve are likely only the most restrictive cases, and the ones they find politically untenable.
Continuing to engage the fight for women’s true freedom, and a reasonable understanding of moral personhood and the assignment of legal rights, is more vital than ever as the backlash grows. I remain optimistic in the long term – reality cannot be evaded forever – but this is not good news in the immediate term, there’s no question about that. Fundamentally, and especially given how thin the poll results are on practical issues, I think little has changed. Given where things stood already, though, that’s hardly reason to be satisfied.
* Obama certainly does!
NB: Crossposted to Lean Left, the politics blog I contribute to.
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