Why Are Less People Identifying As “Pro-Choice”?

If you were to ask most people if an 13-year-old girl should be forced to give birth to a baby after being impregnated by her own father, I think they would say no.

If you were to ask most people if a woman should have to risk her own life while going through labor, I think they would say no. 

If you were to ask most people if they believe abortions should be safely performed under a doctor’s care, I think they would say yes. 

So why, then, did a new Gallup poll released yesterday say that the percentage of Americans willing to identify themselves as “pro-choice” is at a record low?

According to the Gallup poll, 41 percent of Americans call themselves “pro-choice.” That number is a slip from 47 percent in a July 2011 poll and a record low after a poll in May 2009 showed 42 percent support. Conversely, 50 percent of Americans polled by Gallup in the latest poll identified themselves as “pro-life.” (Alas, that was not a record high, but it was close.)

It is important to remember with polls like this that wording can be everything; people’s responses to very similar questions will vary based on how the poll is worded. That would explain why a Harris Interactive poll from 2011 showed rising support for reproductive rights.  The 2011 Harris poll said 36 percent of Americans surveyed supported access to abortion in “all circumstances,” an all time high since the mid-’80s. That same poll found that 47 percent of Americans support access to abortion in “some but not all circumstances” and that opposition to abortion access fell to only 17 percent.

So how is it that a majority of Americans believe in access to at least some abortions — but are not willing to call themselves “pro-choice”?

 There seems to be no better explanation than people who oppose safe, legal abortion have done a good job stigmatizing the word. Even if people who identify as “pro-life” are in the minority, they are a noisy and condemnatory bunch. “Pro-aborts” and “baby killers” are commonly used words. This stigma works much the same way that few people nowadays would say women shouldn’t have their own credit cards or be paid equally to men — and yet tons of people are still reluctant to say “I’m a feminist.”

Anti-abortion folks have also polarized the conversation so that it is just about abortion. The reality is that an abortion after six weeks is totally different from an abortion after eight months, yet there’s no leeway given. If you’re a baby killer, you’re a baby killer.  Also, the anti-abortion framing of the labels ignores how there are many other issues that fall under the umbrella of a woman’s freedom to choose, like contraception and sterilization. Why is that important? Because no one wants women to have abortions, yet even people who think abortion should be legal and people who are really uncomfortable with abortion can probably agree that both women and men having access to contraception is extremely important.

Yet despite all my frustrations with how polarized these labels have become, I’m not anti-label. It really matters for the people for whom this label applies to have ownership, so to speak, about what they mean. (Look no further than Rush Limbaugh and the phrase “feminazi” for further proof.) I proudly call myself pro-choice; I just personally explain my beliefs in more detail, “I believe abortions should be safe, legal and hopefully rare.” If pressed, I will say, “History has shown women have always terminated pregnancies somehow. It’s better for women themselves and for their families if these abortions are legal and therefore safe.” It’s a more nuanced explanation that reflects my values and it also happens to be the explanation that is most true for me. 

How do you identify yourself when it comes to “pro-choice” or “pro-life”? How did you come about deciding that you’d identify yourself that way?  Tell us in the comments.

[Gallup Poll]
[US News & World Reports]

Contact the author of this post at [email protected] Follow me on Twitter at @JessicaWakeman.