Are We a Pro-life Nation?

06/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A new Gallup poll released this week found that a majority of Americans identify themselves as "pro-life." Specifically, 51% of Americans identify themselves as pro-life and 42% as pro-choice. This is the first time since Gallup began asking this question in 1995 that a majority of people have identified themselves as pro-life. While more people are identifying themselves as pro-life, the poll also found that 53% said that abortion should be legal under certain circumstances.

New articles trumpeted the poll as "shocking" and "stunning." I think for many people, what is most surprising about these new poll numbers is the timing of this rise in pro-life sentiment. After the election of Barack Obama as President and after the significant Democratic majority in Congress, some might expect these numbers to be very different. So why is the country becoming more pro-life?

Well, Gallup posits that President Obama's support of a woman's right to choose through his repeal of the global gag rule and his support of the Freedom of Choice Act, has somehow resulted in a Republican backlash. Gallup's theory appears to be that President Obama's strong support for a woman's right to choose has galvanized Republicans to become more adamantly pro-life.

I don't necessarily buy that. First of all, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Republican is at a historic low of 20 percent so the idea that suddenly there is a majority of Americans organizing around the choice issue as a backlash seems tenuous at best. Also, what many people fail to realize is just how pro-life this country really is in terms of the numbers and that it has been for some time. There are more pro-life than pro-choice votes in Congress and there have been for several years. Moreover, President Obama has not pushed a radically pro-choice agenda, such that there would be a backlash. While he did repeal the global gag rule, which prohibited the US Agency for International Development (USAID) from providing funds to foreign health centers that used its own non-US granted funds for abortion services or counseling, he decided not to push forth the Freedom of Choice Act (which would have codified Roe v. Wade), despite promising Planned Parenthood that he would do so once in office. There are many in the choice movement who had hoped the President would commit to the Freedom of Choice Act, but he now says the Freedom of Choice Act is not one of his highest legislative priorities. Furthermore, just because there is a Democratic President does not by any means signify that the choice debate is over. On the contrary, between 1995 and 2008, states enacted 528 anti-choice legislative measures, and Bill Clinton was President during those first five years.

What the new Gallup poll most likely means is that President Obama will be under real pressure to appoint a solidly pro-choice justice to the Supreme Court but not one that is so liberal that it will lead to an all out war in the confirmation process. It also means that he will likely appoint a just-left-of-center appointee, rather than a truly left leaning activist judge or politician, as he tries to avoid further polarizing the country over the choice issue. So what this new Gallup poll really means is that we will see President Obama gravitate more to the center on his selection of a nominee than some would have thought. With the country deeply split over one of the key hot button social issues, just-left-of-center will be the key.

We saw indications of Obama's focus on the center with his expected appointment this week of his first candidate to an appeals court seat, where he choose David F. Hamilton, a highly regarded federal trial court judge from Indiana, for the appeals court in Chicago. This choice of a well known moderate signals the Obama administration's plans to avoid the type of searing partisan fights that characterized previous judicial confirmations.