Discussing the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court, MSNBC host Chris Matthews cited a poll to suggest the Americans are closely split on whether the Constitution protects a woman's right to an abortion. On the July 21 edition of Hardball, Matthews asked Sen. John McCain (R-AZ): "How do you keep -- how do you find a brilliant appointment in a country where 40 percent of the country or 45 percent call themselves pro-choice on abortion rights, believes the Constitution protects that right, and 40 percent or so, maybe less than that, on the other side say, no, we don't think the Constitution ever says that?"
But this question misleadingly conflates Americans' personal views on abortion with public opinion regarding whether Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion, should be preserved. Though Matthews offered a reasonably accurate representation of the percentage of Americans who consider themselves "pro-choice" or "pro-life," he vastly understated the percentage of Americans who believe that Roe v. Wade should remain the law of the land, i.e., that, in Matthews's words, "the U.S. Constitution protects a woman's right to an abortion." In fact, a number of recent polls show that more than six in 10 Americans believe that Roe should be upheld.
For instance, a Pew Research poll conducted June 8-12 asked: "In 1973 the Roe versus Wade decision established a woman's constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Would you like to see the Supreme Court completely overturn its Roe versus Wade decision, or not?" Sixty-three percent responded "No"; 30 percent responded "Yes."
Similarly, a Gallup poll conducted July 7-10 asked the same question to half of its respondents; 68 percent said, "No, not overturn," while 29 percent responded, "Yes, overturn." Gallup asked the other half of respondents a different version of the question: "Would you like to see the Supreme Court overturn its 1973 Roe versus Wade decision concerning abortion, or not?" Sixty-three percent responded, "No, not overturn," and 28 percent responded, "Yes, overturn."
A Gallup poll conducted June 24-26 found that nearly two-thirds of respondents want a new Supreme Court justice who would vote to uphold Roe. Gallup asked: "If one of the U.S. Supreme Court justices retired, would you want the new Supreme Court justice to be someone who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade -- the decision that legalized abortion -- or vote to uphold it?" Sixty-five percent responded, "Vote to keep it," while 29 percent responded, "Vote to overturn."
In addition, a CBS News poll conducted July 13-14 asked: "More than thirty years ago, the Supreme Court's decision in Roe versus Wade established a constitutional right for women to obtain legal abortions in this country. In general, do you think the Court's decision was a good thing or a bad thing?" Of the 632 adult respondents, 59 percent called the decision a "good thing," and 32 percent called it a "bad thing."
Polling does suggest that Matthews's numbers are roughly accurate when measuring whether people regard themselves as pro-choice or pro-life, but not when those numbers are applied to the debate over the Supreme Court's role in protecting the right to an abortion. A May 2-5 Gallup poll found that 48 percent of respondents considered themselves "pro-choice," and 44 percent considered themselves "pro-life." Similarly, an April 25-26, 2005, Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll asked registered voters: "On the issue of abortion, would you say you are more pro-life or more pro-choice?" Forty-seven percent responded "pro-choice," and 42 percent responded "pro-life."
It should be noted that "pro-choice" and "pro-life" are vague terms, and different respondents surely understand them differently. A May 12-16 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked a more specific question: "Which of the following best represents your views about abortion -- the choice on abortion should be left up to the woman and her doctor, abortion should be legal only in cases in which pregnancy results from rape or incest or when the life of the woman is at risk, or abortion should be illegal in all circumstances?" A majority, 55 percent, said the choice should be left up to a "woman and her doctor"; 29 percent said abortion should be legal only in cases of rape, incest, or a threat to the life of the mother; and 14 percent said it should always be illegal.