Pragmatic Americans Liberal and Conservative on Social Issues
Most Want Middle Ground on Abortion
Summary of Findings
Americans cannot be easily characterized as conservative or liberal on today’s most pressing social questions. The public’s point of view varies from issue to issue. They are conservative in opposing gay marriage and gay adoption, liberal in favoring embryonic stem cell research and a little of both on abortion. Along with favoring no clear ideological approach to most social issues, the public expresses a desire for a middle ground on the most divisive social concern of the day: abortion.
Together, the results of the latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life suggest that the public remains reluctant to move too far from current policies and practices on many key social policy questions. Despite talk of “culture wars” and the high visibility of activist groups on both sides of the cultural divide, there has been no polarization of the public into liberal and conservative camps.
Indeed, public opinion has moved little on these issues in recent years and continues to be mixed and often inconsistent, reflecting a blend of pragmatism and principle. For instance, a clear majority (56%) continues to oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry while 35% express support. But nearly as large a majority (54%) supports allowing homosexual couples to enter into legal agreements that would give them many of the same rights as married couples.
The survey, conducted July 6-19 among 2,003 adults, also found that 55% prefer that abortion laws be decided at the national level rather than each state deciding for itself. This desire for a national policy prescription extends to other social issues as well. Despite growing antipathy toward Congress and low levels of trust in the federal government generally, majorities or pluralities also favor a national rather than state-by-state approach to policymaking on stem cell research, gay marriage and whether creationism should be taught in the schools along with evolution.
The poll also found no consensus among either supporters or opponents of gay marriage over how far to go to press their respective positions. Barely half of all those who favor allowing gays to marry say supporters should “push hard” to make it legal as soon as possible, while slightly more than four-in-ten urge caution so as to avoid creating “bad feelings against homosexuals.” Similarly, only a small majority (54%) of gay marriage opponents favor amending the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage. The public is similarly divided on other hot-button issues. A slim majority (52%) opposes allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children.
Abortion continues to split the country nearly down the middle. But there is consensus in one key area: two out of three Americans (66%) support finding “a middle ground” when it comes to abortion. Only three-in-ten (29%), by contrast, believe “there’s no room for compromise when it comes to abortion laws.” This desire to find common ground extends broadly across the political and ideological spectrum.
Majorities of Republicans (62%), Democrats (70%) and political independents (66%) favor a compromise. So do majorities of liberals, moderates and conservatives. More than six-in-ten white evangelicals also support compromise, as do 62% of white, non-Hispanic Catholics.
Only one group expressed unwillingness to find a middle way. Two-thirds (66%) of those who support an outright ban on abortion say there should be no compromise. In contrast, two-thirds of those who want abortion to be generally available are ready to seek an accommodation.
An even larger consensus emerged on another issue. By more than 4-1, the public says pharmacists who personally oppose birth control for religious reasons should still be required to sell birth control pills to women. But while the public is overwhelmingly opposed to allowing pharmacists to refuse to sell birth control, there is less consensus on other issues having to do with pharmaceuticals and reproductive rights.
For instance, Americans split 48% to 41% over whether to allow women to obtain the so-called morning-after pill without first obtaining a doctor’s prescription. The pill contains high doses of hormones which, when taken shortly after unprotected intercourse, can prevent ovulation or the implantation of a fertilized egg.
On another contentious issue related to reproduction, a majority of the public (56%) continues to believe that it is more important to conduct stem cell research that may lead to new medical cures rather than to avoid destroying the potential life of human embryos involved in the research (32%). For the first time in Pew polling, more white evangelicals now favor stem cell research (44%) than oppose it (40%).
Taken together, the findings on stem cells, abortion, conscience clauses for pharmacists and the morning-after pill underscore the public’s deep ambivalence on reproductive rights.
Abortion Opinions Stable
Public opinion about the legality of abortion is largely unchanged from previous polling. While about one-in-three (31%) prefer for abortion to be generally available to those who want it and one-in-ten (11%) take the opposite position that abortion should not be permitted at all, most Americans fall in between, preferring what might be described as a “legal but rare” stance. One-in-five (20%) say that abortion should be available but under stricter limits than it is now, while about one-in-three (35%) say that abortion should be illegal except in cases of rape, incest or to save the woman’s life.
Just as abortion opinions are largely stable, so too are differences of opinion on the issue across demographic, political and religious groups. As polls have often shown, there is no gender gap in opinion about the availability of abortion. College graduates and people in their 50s and early 60s roughly the first half of the Baby Boom generation are more supportive of making abortion generally available than are other demographic groups.
As in the past, about two-thirds of conservative Republicans say that abortion should only be available in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is threatened (50%), or not permitted at all (18%). Three-quarters of liberal Democrats, by contrast, say abortion either should be generally available (60%) or available but with stricter limits (14%).
White evangelicals and black Protestants stand out for their high levels of opposition to abortion. Among seculars and those who rarely attend church, on the other hand, majorities say that abortion should be generally available.
Most Don’t Doubt Their Opinion on Abortion
The fact that most Americans wish that a middle ground could be found on the issue of abortion should not be mistaken for a lack of certitude about their own opinions on the subject. Fully two-thirds of the public (66%) say they do not wonder if their own position on abortion is the right one, while fewer than one-third (30%) admit to doubts about this results that have changed little since 1988. There are few differences across demographic, political and religious groups on this question, and pro-choice respondents differ little from pro-life respondents in their lack of doubt.
As in 2005, a large majority of the public (73%) continues to view abortion as morally wrong in at
least some circumstances, while only 24% say that abortion is not a moral issue. But slightly fewer now say that abortion is morally wrong in nearly all circumstances (24% now compared with 29% in 2005), while there has been a small increase in the number saying that abortion is morally wrong in some circumstances (49% today compared with 41% one year ago).
Opinions about the morality of abortion are closely linked to abortion policy preferences, with those who view abortion as morally wrong expressing greater support for regulating or banning abortions compared with those who do not see abortion as a moral issue. Among those who see abortion as morally wrong in nearly all circumstances, for instance, one-third (32%) say abortion should not be permitted at all, and 47% approve of abortion only in the most extreme circumstances. Among those who say abortion is not a moral issue, by contrast, more than two-thirds (68%) say abortion should be generally available.
Majorities Continue to Support Stem Cell Research
A majority of Americans continues to back stem cell research. But public awareness of the issue has not increased over the past year despite the protracted battle between President Bush and Congress over increased funding for stem cell research that culminated July 19 in the first veto of the Bush administration.
Fewer than half (43%) say they have heard a lot about the stem cell debate while most say they have heard little (42%) or nothing at all (15%) if anything, a slight decline from awareness levels one year ago.
Support for stem cell research also remains largely unchanged. A clear majority (56%) says it is more important to continue stem cell research that might produce new medical cures than to avoid destroying the human embryos used in the research.
Nearly a third (32%) say it is more important to avoid destroying the potential life of human embryos. In the past five years, the proportion favoring stem cell research has increased 13 percentage points, with most of those gains occurring before 2004.
As in previous years, those who have heard more about the issue are more supportive of stem cell research. Nearly seven-in-ten respondents who say they are paying “a lot” of attention to the issue favor continuing to conduct the research. A majority (54%) of those who are paying just a little attention to the controversy also wants stem cell research to continue. But the majority flips among those who say they have heard nothing: Among these Americans, 56% say it is more important not to destroy the potential life of human embryos.
Support for continuing stem cell research is highest among mainline Protestants and secular individuals. Among both groups, about seven-in-ten favor continuing stem cell research. Fewer than half of all white evangelicals (44%) express support, but this represents a 12-point increase over the past year and is easily the highest level of support recorded among evangelicals in the past five years. The number of liberal Democrats favoring stem cell research has dropped 12 points in two years but remains higher than among any other political group.
More education also correlates with increased support for stem cell research, and every age group except the very oldest expressed majority support. Nearly seven-in-ten college graduates (69%) say it is more important to conduct research than protect human embryos, a view shared by 57% of those who attended some college and 53% of high school graduates, but only 41% of those who did not finish high school. Roughly six-in-ten Americans under the age of 65 also favor stem cell research while only 41% of those 65 and older express similar support.
Continued Opposition to Gay Marriage
By a 56%-35% margin, a majority of Americans continues to oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. These figures are largely unchanged over the past several years.
Opposition to gay marriage is most pronounced among older Americans, while younger people express relatively high levels of support for legalizing same-sex marriage. Among those 65 and older, three-in-four (73%) oppose legalizing gay marriage, while more than half (53%) of adults under the age of 30 favor this position.
Republicans are relatively united in opposition to gay marriage, with 83% of conservative Republicans and 66% of moderate and liberal Republicans holding this view. The issue splits the Democratic Party, however, with two-thirds of liberal Democrats (66%) in favor of gay marriage and 59% of conservative and moderate Democrats opposed. Independents are evenly divided (46% in favor, 45% opposed).
Opinions on this issue are also closely related to religion; white evangelical Protestants (78%) and black Protestants (74%) overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage, as do a majority of white Catholics (58%) and a plurality of white mainline Protestants (47%). Only among seculars does a majority (63%) express support for gay marriage.
But while a majority opposes gay marriage, opponents are divided on whether it would be a good idea to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban it. The result is that just three-in-ten Americans (30%) currently oppose gay marriage and think a constitutional amendment would be a good idea. Even among groups most strongly opposed to gay marriage (white evangelicals, Republicans, conservatives and senior citizens), less than a majority favor an amendment.
Among Gay Marriage Supporters, Division over How Best to Proceed
Just as gay marriage opponents are divided over how best to prevent it, supporters of gay marriage are divided over how best to pursue legalizing same-sex unions. About half of those who favor gay marriage (51%) support pushing hard for legalization. But a substantial minority of gay marriage supporters (41%) oppose pushing too hard on the issue, for fear that it might risk creating bad feelings against homosexuals.
Older supporters of gay marriage, and those who live in the Midwest or in rural areas, are considerably less likely than others to favor pushing hard to legalize gay marriage.
Catholics, Mainline Protestants Support Civil Unions
While only one-in-three Americans (35%) favor gay marriage, majorities do express support for civil unions. The poll finds that 54% of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into legal agreements giving them many of the same rights as married couples. This figure, too, is largely unchanged compared with one year ago — but it is nine percentage points higher than it was in October 2003.
Evidence of the continuing red state/blue state divide can be seen on this question. In the East and West, large majorities (62% and 66%, respectively) favor civil unions. In the Midwest and South, by contrast, roughly half (48% and 50%, respectively) oppose even this type of legal recognition of same-sex couples.
As with gay marriage, white evangelicals (66%), black Protestants (62%) and frequent church attenders (60%) stand out for their opposition to civil unions. But sizeable majorities of white mainline Protestants (66%), Catholics (63%) and seculars (78%) support civil unions.
Despite majority support for allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into legal agreements with many of the same rights shared by married couples, one such right that the public is not ready to extend is that of adopting children. By a 52%-42% margin, a majority of the public opposes allowing gays and lesbians to adopt. Here again, the poll finds evidence of a continuing geographic divide; majorities of Midwesterners (57%) and Southerners (60%) oppose gay adoption, while majorities of those in the East (52%) and the West (51%) favor allowing gays to adopt children.
Growing Number See Homosexuality as Innate, Unchangeable Trait
Opinions about the nature of homosexuality have changed slightly since 2003. Today, somewhat more Americans believe that homosexuality is innate (from 30% in 2003 to 36% now) and that homosexuality cannot be changed (from 42% to 49%). But the majority of the public still rejects the idea that homosexuality is something that people are born with, and see it instead as either a product of the way people are brought up (13%) or as “just the way that some people prefer to live” (38%).
Although the number of Americans who see homosexuality as something people are born with has increased only modestly since 2003, this view is now much more widely held among certain groups in the population than it was three years ago. There has been a double-digit increase since 2003 in the view that homosexuality is innate among college graduates (from 39% to 51%), liberals (46% to 57%), mainline Protestants (37% to 52%) and among those who seldom or never attend church (from 36% to 52%).
In contrast to these groups, majorities of white evangelicals (51%) and black Protestants (52%) continue to view homosexuality as a choice. White evangelicals, in particular, have changed very little in their views on this question over the past three years.
Though most Americans reject the notion that homosexuality is an innate trait, a plurality of the public (49%) views sexual orientation as a characteristic that cannot be changed, a seven percentage-point increase since 2003.
Views of whether homosexuality can be changed have both a political and a religious component. A small majority of conservatives (52%) says homosexuality can be changed, while the overwhelming majority of liberals (71%) disagrees. Similarly, substantial majorities of white evangelicals (56%) and black Protestants (60%) say that homosexuality can be changed, while majorities of white mainline Protestants (67%), Catholics (56%) and seculars (59%) say homosexuality cannot be changed.
Views of the nature of homosexuality are closely related to views of gay marriage and civil unions, with those who view homosexuality as innate and unchangeable expressing more support for these policies compared with those who see homosexuality as changeable. Among those who view homosexuality as innate, for instance, a large majority (58%) supports allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. But among those who see homosexuality as a product of one’s upbringing or as a lifestyle choice, overwhelming majorities (82% and 71%, respectively) oppose gay marriage.
Opinion on Pharmaceutical Controversies
Recent controversies over the morning-after pill and conscience clauses have not captured the public’s attention. Only one-in-four (25%) say they have heard a lot about the debate over whether women should be allowed to get the morning-after pill without a doctor’s prescription; roughly the same number says they have heard nothing at all about this issue (24%).
There is even less familiarity with the controversy over pharmacist conscience clauses. Nearly half of the public (47%) says they have heard nothing at all about the debate over allowing pharmacists who have religious objections to birth control to refuse to provide contraceptives to customers, while fewer than one-in-five (18%) say they have heard a lot about this issue. There are few demographic or political differences in attention to these issues.
The public is divided on the question of whether or not women should be allowed to obtain the morning-after pill without a doctor’s prescription; about half (48%) favor this while four-in-ten (41%) are opposed.
There are both political and religious links to opinions on this issue. Slim majorities of Republicans (54%), white evangelicals (53%) and black Protestants (53%) oppose making the morning-after pill available over-the-counter, while majorities of Democrats (55%), white mainline Protestants (57%) and seculars (67%) take the opposite stance.
Opinions about the morning-after pill are also closely bound up with opinions on abortion. Among those who say abortion should be generally available, nearly eight-in-ten (79%) also support allowing women to get the morning-after pill without a prescription. But among those who are most opposed to abortion, two-thirds (66%) oppose making the morning-after pill freely available.
There is much less division on the question of whether or not to allow pharmacists who have religious objections to contraception to refuse to sell birth control to women who have a prescription for it. Eight-in-ten Americans (80%) oppose allowing pharmacists to refuse to provide birth control, while fewer than one-in-five (17%) express support. No political or religious groups express majority support for this type of conscience clause.
Public Divided on Social Issues, But No “Culture War”
Public attitudes across a set of five issues that have been the focus of intense political activity in recent years gay marriage, adoption of children by gay couples, abortion, stem cell research and the morning-after pill show a mix of conservative and liberal majorities. On none of the five issues does more than 56% of the public line up on one side of the question or the other.
Opinions on these issues are related to one another; for example, most of those who take the most conservative positions on abortion also oppose gay marriage, and a similar pattern is seen for each pair of items. But there is also a great deal of inconsistency. Just over one-in-ten Americans (12%) takes the conservative position on all of these items, and a somewhat larger number (22%) take conservative positions on none of the items. Thus, much of the public falls between the extremes on this collection of issues. About one-third of the respondents (34%) are squarely in the middle, taking two or three conservative positions out of a possible five; 16% are mostly liberal (taking only one conservative opinion) and 16% are mostly conservative (taking four conservative opinions).
To see how opinions on this set of social issues vary across groups in the population, respondents were sorted into three groups, corresponding to low, medium and high levels of conservatism; the low group was conservative on zero or one issue (38% of the sample), the medium group on two or three issues (34%) and the high group on four or five issues (28%).
By far the most conservative groups on these issues are white evangelical Protestants (46% in the high conservative category) and self-described conservative Republicans (53%). Conversely, the least conservative are self-described liberal Democrats (69% in the low conservatism category) and seculars (66%). White Catholics fall at about the national average on this scale, and white mainline P
rotestants are significantly less conservative than the average.
Conservatism also varies by education. College graduates are much less conservative than those with lower levels of education on these social issues. Interestingly, blacks are more conservative than whites, and men more so than women. Geographically, residents of the South and Midwest are significantly more conservative socially than those in the West and Northeast.
There are also generational differences, with younger respondents and those in their 50s and early 60s least likely to score high on social conservatism. The oldest respondents those 65 and older are the most conservative.
Public Supports National Approach on Social Issues
While no overwhelming consensus exists on the question of how best to handle social issues, more Americans believe these issues should be decided at the national level than by each state individually. Indeed, despite the strong federalist tradition in American political culture, relatively few Americans express consistent support for a state-by-state approach.
The poll asked whether each of four social issues gay marriage, abortion, stem cells and teaching creationism should be decided at the national level or by each state. Only about one-in-four Americans (28%) expresses support for a state-level solution on at least three of the four issues. Nearly half (48%), by contrast, express support for a national approach on at least three of these four issues. The remainder of the public (24%) expresses mixed views on which level of government should make the decisions.
A preference for national rather than state-level solutions is seen among all major political and demographic groups in the population. Conservatives are nearly as supportive of the national approach as liberals are, and there is no significant difference between Republicans and Democrats on this matter. Support for a national approach varies only slightly across geographic regions, though it is interesting, given the long history of states-rights philosophy in the South, that slightly more Southerners than residents of the rest of the nation express consistent support for a national approach to dealing with social issues.
The same lack of major differences can be seen when it comes to religion, where pluralities of all groups express consistent support for a national approach on social issues. White evangelical Protestants (55% of whom favor a national approach) stand out for their above-average support for this option.
Opinions on some of the specific issues are related to preferences for whether there should be a national or a state-by-state policy. Those who take a conservative stance on gay marriage are more supportive of a national approach on the issue than are those who take a liberal stand; 67% of those who strongly oppose gay marriage support a national approach to the issue, while a majority of gay marriage supporters (54%) favors a state-level approach.
On the other social issues (abortion, stem cell research, teaching creationism), the link between conservative issue positions and support for a national approach is weaker. But support for a national approach is related to intensity of opinion and familiarity with the issues. On abortion, for instance, a majority (59%) of those who do not wonder whether their own position on abortion is right favor a national approach to abortion, compared with less than half (47%) among those who have doubts about their own opinion on abortion. And among those who say there is no room for compromise when it comes to abortion, more than two-thirds (68%) favor a national approach, compared with only 50% of those who see a need to find a middle ground on this issue.
Similarly, those who are the most familiar with the stem cell debate are most supportive of a national approach on the issue. Three-quarters (74%) of those who have heard a lot about stem-cell research express support for a national approach, compared with 54% of those who have heard nothing at all on the issue.
There is no consistent pattern in responses to indicate that people are thinking about political strategy when they respond to the question of which level of government should deal with these issues. Those who live in areas where their values are widely shared by others are no more likely to favor a state-by-state approach than are those whose values are not widely shared by their neighbors. For example, in Republican-leaning states, where residents could expect state-level social policies to reflect more conservative values, those who take conservative positions on a given issue are not consistently more likely than those who take a liberal view to favor a state-by-state approach. That is, the prospect of having the state adopt policies consistent with one’s own views does not necessarily lead to a preference for a state-level decision on the issue.
Similarly, people who take conservative positions on a particular issue but who live in a predominantly Democratic state are no more likely to favor a national approach to the issue suggesting that the prospect of having the state adopt a policy at odds with one’s views does not necessarily lead to a preference for a national decision on the issue.
The same absence of a consistent pattern is true for those who take liberal positions on the issues, regardless of whether they live in predominantly Republican or Democratic states.