June 1, 2009, 2:13 pm
By Katharine Q. Seelye
Abortion was not a major issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, and it has been relatively muted since President Obama’s election.
But three events have conspired in the last two weeks to bring it back to the fore: President Obama confronted it in his commencement address at Notre Dame; Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who has yet to publicly signal her position on the issue, has been nominated to the Supreme Court; and George Tiller, one of the few doctors in the country who performed late-term abortions, was gunned down on Sunday.
While abortion remains one of the most contentious issues in American politics, polling continues to show that people’s views of the procedure are not easily categorized, as our colleague, Dalia Sussman, from The Times’s polling department, wrote last month.
Over time, polling has shown that Americans generally support abortion rights, but they also want more restrictions than are in place today. And a majority (56 percent in a recent Gallup poll) says they personally believe that abortion is morally wrong.
Polls have also suggested that Americans support abortion in some circumstances but not in others. For example, a Fox News poll in October 2007 found voters broadly supportive of abortion if the woman’s life or health is at risk, but more opposed for an unwanted pregnancy.
The polls rarely show wide swings on the subject. But there can be some movement among a few percent of people who appear to be in the middle, fluctuations that may be related to how the question is asked but may also be related to current events.
In April, for example, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 52 percent said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 41 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases.
The same month, however, a Pew poll found less of a split, with 46 percent supporting legal abortion in all or most cases, and 44 percent opposing it.
In mid-May, CNN asked people if they wanted the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Nearly 7 in 10 (68 percent) said no.
But a Gallup poll conducted around the same time said that for the first time since Gallup began asking the question in 1995, a majority of adults (51 percent) identified themselves as pro-life, up seven points from a year ago to a new high.
It is too soon to say whether Dr. Tiller’s killing will have any effect on public opinion about the procedure; there has been widespread shock and horror at his shooting but at the same time, Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, is calling Dr. Tiller a “mass murderer” and summoning images of abortions, which he says are just as horrifying.