When abortion polls promote misperceptions
by John Russonello, Mon Oct 05, 2009 at 07:20:12 AM EDT
With all of the attention given to the Pew poll's recent finding that support for abortion has declined, one key point gets lost: the question of whether the country should "keep abortion legal" does little to explain the views of a majority of Americans. According to Pew's survey, over eight in ten Americans do not want to outlaw abortion; for most of them, circumstances are what matters.
When Pew released its numbers this week asserting that support has dropped for abortion because 47% of the public now says abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 45% says it should be illegal in all or most cases (down from 54-40 a year ago), it reinforced the misperception that abortion opinions are two dimensional. At BRS, we learned a while ago that opinions on abortion are not bipolar - yes/no - but rather on a continuum, based on how restrictive people want to be.
We developed a four-part question that reflects this continuum, and we found that, given the choice, more Americans took a middle position that would place some restrictions on - but not outlaw - abortion.
Our new poll of Catholics nationwide, released yesterday and conducted for Catholics for Choice, uses an almost identical question highlighting those in the middle: 21% of Catholics told us they believe abortion should be legal in all cases, 27% said legal in most cases, 37% said legal in just a few cases, and 14 % said they believed abortion should never be legal.
When we compare our Catholic results with the results from another BRS nationwide poll of Catholics in 2005, we find that the proportion of Catholics who say that abortion should be legal in all or almost all cases has increased by five points (from 16% to 21%) and those on the other end of the spectrum have depleted by about the same proportion (from 21% to 14%). Those who say abortion should be legal <span style="text-decoration: underline;">in most cases</span> rose by five points (from 22% to 27%) and those who say abortion should be legal in <span style="text-decoration: underline;">just a few cases</span> rose from 34% to 37%. All of these results fall within the margins of error and, therefore, we need to continue to monitor opinions for evidence of trends.
The importance of circumstances when it comes to abortion is reflected in questions we asked Catholics about abortion and health care reform. We asked, "Do you think health insurance policies - whether they are private or government - should cover abortions under each of the following circumstances?"
- When a pregnancy poses a threat to the life of a woman (84% say yes; 15% say no)
- When a pregnancy is due to rape or incest (76%; 23%)
- When a pregnancy poses long-term health risks for a woman (73%; 25%)
- When test results show a fetus has a severe abnormal condition (66%; 31%)
- Whenever a woman and her doctor decide it is appropriate (50%; 50%)
The debate over abortion continues to be dominated by the absolutists from the conservative side who will not be satisfied until abortion goes away entirely. We do not hear much from those Americans in the middle. The media pollsters fan the flames of this bipolar politics of abortion.
If pollsters begin to ask questions that look at abortion on a continuum, we could lessen the artificial categorization of public opinion, which allows conservatives to obscure the important point that eight in ten Americans believe abortion should not be outlawed.