Jun 14, 2010

From the Archives

New Barna Study Explores Current Views on Abortion

While the nation’s economy, immigration in Arizona, and the Gulf oil spill dominate the headlines–a recent study from the Barna Group examines a major fault line in American social life: abortion. President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court as well as the upcoming mid-term elections represent settings where the current debate between ‘choice’ and ‘life’ will be played out. The Barna study revealed five insights about abortion-related public opinion.

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Abortion continues to split the nation.
The Barna study of 1,001 adults explored Americans’ views on abortion by asking if they believe “abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases.” Given this set of four options, the nation’s population leans toward retaining legal status for abortion: 49% prefer keeping it legal in all or most cases versus 42% who would like to make it illegal in all or most instances.
However, most Americans take a moderate, rather than hard-line, stance.
Only about one-third of Americans take a strong position on one side or the other. For instance, 15% want abortion to be legal in every situation and 19% prefer the practice to be illegal in all cases. Most others hold moderate views – 57% expressed a mildly supportive or unsupportive opinion. Meanwhile, one out of 11 adults simply responded “not sure” or declined to answer (9%). Compared to tracking data conducted in the 1990s and early 2000s, the new research suggests that Americans are more likely these days to take a “middle ground” or “not sure” position toward abortion.
Faith remains a significant dividing line of opinions.
Among evangelical Christians, 78% believe that the practice should be illegal in all or most cases, a proportion which is virtually mirrored by the 72% of atheists and agnostics who support keeping the practice legal. Also, each of these segments was the most likely population group to express unyielding resistance to (evangelicals) or support for (atheists and agnostics) abortion.
Other faith audiences were less polarized, but still had distinct perspectives on the matter, either for or against. Non-evangelical born again Christians favor making abortion illegal (55% illegal versus 39% legal), as did active churchgoers (60% versus 33%) and non-mainline Protestants (58% versus 34%). Those faith segments that prefer keeping abortion legal were self-identified Christians who are not born again (54% legal versus 31% illegal), Catholics (53% versus 36%), mainline Protestants (53% versus 40%), and faiths other than Christianity (54% versus 42%).
Interestingly, when faith and political allegiance are combined, born again Republicans (72%) were among the most ardent critics of abortion. Born again independent voters also favored making abortion illegal (58%), while born again Democrats were split between those who were for (47%) and against (47%) the practice.
Young born again Christians retain similar abortion views to older Christians.
While there has been much discussion about the changing perspectives of young Christians, the research revealed that born again Christians under the age of 45 were not substantially different from older generations of Christians. Overall, 61% of 18- to 44-year-old born again Christians said they wanted to see abortion be illegal in all or most cases, which compares to 55% among born again believers ages 45 and older. (The six-point gap is within the range of sampling error for the two subgroups.) Interestingly, when compared to older born again Christians, the younger set are much more likely to express strong views about the subject (either keeping it legal or illegal in all cases) and less likely to say they are not sure.Keeping abortion legal elicits more demographic pockets of support than resistance.
A significant number of demographic segments prefer retaining legalized status for abortions, including: whites, Hispanics, and Asians; upscale adults and college graduates; the nation’s two largest generations, Busters (ages 26 to 44) and Boomers (ages 45 to 63); women; unmarried adults and those currently without children; political moderates and liberals; registered Democrats and independent voters; and a plurality of residents living in the Midwest, West, and Northeast.

Those groups most resistant to abortion are residents of the South, political conservatives, Mosaics (ages 18 to 25), and Republicans. A handful of population segments emerged as equally likely to take both sides of the issue:  blacks, parents, married adults, non-college grads, Elders (ages 64-plus), and downscale adults.

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Barna Analysis
David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and the director of the study, commented that “abortion continues to divide Americans, but the debate over the subject seems to be changing. The data suggest that among some Americans, though certainly not all, the issue has become less polarizing. Perhaps it appears less relevant to Americans because there are so many other urgent issues. Also, the standard debate may seem toned down as both sides of the ideological spectrum have tried to find common objectives – such as limiting the number of abortions and pursuing adoption reform – although some have questioned how serious either contingent really is about these goals.”

“Still, as Americans appear ready to rethink many different issues, it is important to consider new ways of communicating about and addressing the issues of abortion, life and choice. Within that context, it is worth recognizing that a slight plurality of most population groups has settled into the idea that abortion should be kept legal, but that it should be only available selectively. Yet, one of the intriguing counter-trends to public support for legalized abortion is the fact that younger born again Christians specifically and 18- to 25-year-olds in general seem to be embracing, or at least retaining, a conservative viewpoint on abortion.”

About the Research
This Barna Update article is based upon a nationwide tracking study, called OmniPollSM, conducted by the Barna Group. The telephone interviews were derived from a random sample of 1,001 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, from February 7 to February 10, 2010. Interviews were conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

“Downscale” individuals are those whose annual household income is less than $20,000 and who have not attended college. “Upscale” people are those whose annual household income is $75,000 or more and they have graduated from a four-year college.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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