Social conservatives had a tough year in 2015. In June, the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges effectively legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states. Political efforts to legalize assisted suicide also gained momentum, due in part to sympathetic press coverage of Brittany Maynard’s death the previous year. In October 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that legalized assisted suicide in California, and similar legislation was considered in other states.
We might expect public opinion to have shifted accordingly. There is a body of research suggesting that public opinion moves in a direction consistent with public policy—especially on morality policy issues. Policy changes grant certain issues greater legitimacy with the general public. For instance, many public opinion surveys showed that support for legal abortion increased sharply between 1972 and 1974, as a result of the Roe v. Wade decision.
But a Gallup poll released last month suggests that this is not happening today with same-sex relations and doctor-assisted suicide (scroll down for the relevant data). Along with some life issues (abortion and embryonic stem-cell research), these issues have declined slightly in acceptability (by two to four percentage points) in the past year. With the exception of same-sex relations, all of these issues have been fairly stable since 2001, when Gallup first began asking Americans annually about the moral acceptability of a range of social policy issues.
So social conservatives need not despair. Pro-lifers are passing record-setting amounts of legislation at the state level. Opponents of doctor-assisted suicide have used an ideologically diverse coalition to win legislative battles in many states. And this Gallup poll shows that public opinion on social policy issues is far more stable than many pundits imagine.
Michael J. New is a visiting associate professor of economics at Ave Maria University and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.