NRL News

Surprise, surprise! Thoughtful and largely accurate New York Times story on abortion polling

by | Dec 31, 2013


By Dave Andrusko

infinitepossibilitiesAs pertains to our interests, most of the relevant polling in 2013 centered around the dramatic decline in the fortunes of President Obama and in the public’s massive disenchantment with ObamaCare. Those are important developments which we have documented on an almost daily basis.

But there is always the core question: how does the public feel about abortion. Last July I wrote about what was in many ways a very illuminating piece which ran in–of all places—the New York Times. That the story and follow-up analysis appeared in a militantly pro-abortion newspaper was news in itself, a sign, I believe, of bigger developments.

In “In Public Opinion on Abortion, Few Absolutes,” David Leonhardt returned to what he broached a few days earlier in “Why Abortion Is Not Like Other Issues,” that had ran in the Sunday edition of the paper. By New York Times standards, this was a remarkable accurate presentation of what the polling on abortion shows.

To be sure—in good journalistic fashion—Leonhardt began with a false parallel: that BOTH pro-life and pro-abortion forces offer “selective readings of the polls” to back their assertion “that public opinion was already on their side and only becoming more so.”

Not so. For decades National Right to Life had carefully pointed out that when poll questions move past broad categories to inquire about more specific circumstances, you find that a majority of Americans oppose the reasons for which over 90% of abortions are performed. Then, when Gallup started asking those more nuanced questions, we were proven to be absolutely correct.

Here are some pluses in Leonhardt’s analysis (with an occasional qualifier and/or elaboration of his argument).

#1. Let’s begin with something from his first story: “About 60 percent of Americans favor access to abortion in the first trimester (or first 12 weeks) of pregnancy, but close to 70 percent think it should be illegal in the second trimester, according to Gallup.” This is so important we’ll wait to explore this until the very end.

#2. He rightly explains that when asked point-blank, a majority does not want Roe v. Wade overturned. And Leonhardt also observes, ” I don’t imagine that most people who receive a phone call asking their opinion about Roe know the fine details of the decision when they answer the question.” He continued, “But it is worth noting that the strong support for Roe does not necessarily conflict with the strong reservations Americans express about unrestricted abortion access.”

Well, of course. Overwhelmingly, in poll after poll after poll you see that the public believes that Roe legalized abortion not essentially on demand throughout pregnancy but only in the first trimester!

#3. “About one in four Americans says they support abortion without restrictions, most polls show,” he writes. ‘Somewhat fewer Americans–typically about one in five, though it ranges from one in four to one in eight, depending on the poll–oppose abortion in nearly all cases. The rest of the country–roughly 50 percent of it–supports abortion in some circumstances and not others.”

Yes, but…. It’s important to see that the graphs from Gallup that Leonhardt uses do not include the refinement Gallup added in recent years. That is, what do those who respond that abortion should be legal “under certain circumstances” actually mean?

Gallup now asks this follow-up question of these people. Do they mean “Legal under most circumstances” or “legal only in a few circumstances”? This parsing out of what people are saying explains why we can say—with complete accuracy—that “we know that a total of 58% of the American public believes that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances (20%) or legal in only a few circumstances (38%).”

#4. An important paragraph from Leonhardt’s analysis:

“As Gallup’s historical chart shows, opinion on abortion has not shifted in a major way over the years. (It also does not vary much by sex, with women as divided as men on the issue.) But if one side has any slight sway on the trends, it is the anti-abortion campaigners’ side. Twenty years ago, the share of Americans saying abortion should always be legal was more than twice as high as the share saying it should never be legal. Since the mid-1990s, the share of Americans who consider themselves as abortion rights advocates (or “pro-choice” in the poll’s available answers) has also declined.

He doesn’t say so, but if you look at the Gallup graph you see that the pro-life advantage is now 48% to 45%. In 1996 a whopping 56% identified as “pro-choice” to only 33% pro-life. That is a gigantic turnaround.

#5. There are other assorted observations that are worth pondering, but in the interest of space, let’s circle back to #1. Leonhardt’s final sentence is “By any objective measure, the country is conflicted.” Yes, but not necessarily in the way he suggests.

It is unquestionably true that polls show solid majorities in support of abortions in the first trimester. But tell a respondent about various developmental markers along the way in the first trimester and, guess what? A majority would, for example, oppose abortions after fetal brainwaves are detected!

Adding further complications is that when you ask people flat-out whether abortion should be permitted “if the woman doesn’t want the child” (or words to that effect), a majority would say no. Likewise if she feels she is too poor to have the child or doesn’t want to marry the baby’s father. (See “What we can learn from ‘Trends in Public Attitudes toward Abortion’”)

In other words the supposedly unanimity to allow first-trimester abortions may be shakier than anyone thinks.

Do take the time to read Leonhardt’s analysis.

Categories: Polling