Life is short, and if you want to spend what’s left of it examining the results of the latest poll of attitudes toward abortion, follow the link to the Public Religion Research Institute and receive the unsummarized set of findings.

If you have other uses with that time and do not need a close-up, you might content yourself as I did, on the principle that “life is short,” by reading the faithful “Executive Summary.” We leave to others the discussions of poll methodology, contexts and intentions, and plunge in.

Among those who keep up on this kind of venture, it will come as no surprise that there are no surprises on a startling scale in the findings.

Many of them confirm hunches or provide data that will be of interest to partisans who needed a bit more ammunition in the culture wars.

At the same time, there are some fresh insights and they deserve and demand attention. You can be sure that political candidates, legislators and judges will study them.

Thus, in bold type, the Executive Summary leads off reporting that in the majority opinion of the polled, abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while four in 10 disagree.

This proportion is reflected in all religious groups, including the Catholic, except for white evangelicals, who are courted by activists on the “anti-” side.

Thinking of what this means in politics: almost 60 percent “say that at least some health care professionals in their communities should provide abortion.” This time white evangelical Protestants are anti-abortion and joined by Latino Catholics.

“White mainline” and “unaffiliated” are most “pro” (at 72 percent and 71 percent). “White Catholic” and (here’s one surprise for me) black Protestants, line up next (58 percent and 56 percent) as pro-abortion.

Least enthusiastic is the third duo, “Latino Catholic” and “white evangelical” (at 38 percent and 37 percent). One large gap is between the pro-abortion among metropolitan areas (67 percent) and rural dwellers (39 percent).

In general, age is a determining factor, since the youngest cohort (18-29) and the oldest (65+) are far apart, 68 percent to 42 percent pro-abortion.

Leaders of activist groups on both sides have their work cut out for them as they seek to confirm and then enlarge the company of those who currently line up with them.

Battlers favoring or opposed to legal abortion can report little trend change; 12 years ago 57 percent and today 56 percent of the polled thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases, but those opposing same-sex marriage can take less comfort from a trend: in 1999 only 35 percent of the polled thought the law should recognize same-sex marriages, while the number is 53 percent today.

The younger group favors legalizing same sex marriage (57 percent) yet only 46 percent are for legal abortion. The two controversial issues are not coupled the way many observers expected them to be.

Can you go to church and escape bombardment pro or con?

Just over half of reasonably regular church-goers hear the subjects brought up there, but Catholics are more likely to hear messages on the subjects than are other church-goers.

Is there wiggle-room? Definitely. Seventy-two percent of “religious Americans” think it is all right to disagree with their church’s views on abortion and remain in good standing.

Even polled Catholics and white evangelicals agree that it is all right or at least possible to disagree and keep standing.

Absolutists have trouble with majority views that they will see as “relative” since majorities may think abortion is wrong but should be allowed. What can politicians do?

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.

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