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Misconstrued abortion polling but otherwise a useful post by a New York Times columnist

by | Feb 7, 2019

By Dave Andrusko

David Leonhardt
Photo: New America

Two years ago, we posted about what you would ordinarily consider an oxymoron: an intelligent discussion of abortion by a New York Times columnist.

David Leonhardt, in a piece headlined “Abortion and Big Tent Feminism,” correctly observed that while other controversial issues often broke along various lines, “a major issue on which the views of the two sexes, different races and different age groups are fairly similar. …abortion.”

The lead to his February 27, 2017 column was in service of a larger point. He was commenting on a pro-life feminist who argued that the “fatal chink” in the contemporary feminist movement was “its radical position on abortion.”

Leonhardt assured his audience that “I disagree with major chunks of her argument,” but added, “I think she’s right that the progressive movement will be stronger if it’s willing to welcome abortion opponents.”

Flash forward exactly two years—today—and Leonhardt revisits some of the same territory minus the argument about pro-abortion feminists excluding pro-life feminists.

His new post is set in the context of the furious backlash (a word he would never use) to the abortion on demand till birth law passed in New York but turned back in Virginia; and President Trump’s highly visible criticism of both in a memorable State of the Union (SOTU) address.

He makes two points, both valuable, although one misconstrued. We have often pointed out that Gallup’s polling on abortion is better than Pew’s. Leonhardt’s explanation is

The main difference involves the second most restrictive option. Gallup emphasizes when abortion is legal in its option: “in only a few circumstances.” Pew emphasizes when it’s illegal: “in most circumstances.”

In other words, the use of the word “legal” versus “illegal.” But that’s not the reason at all.

Gallup asks the “mushy middle”—those who say abortion should be legal “in certain circumstances”—a follow up question: few or most circumstances?

Most say legal in only a “few” circumstances rather than “most” circumstances. This more nuanced question gives 53% say abortion should be legal in only a few circumstances (35%) or no circumstances (18%).

Ironically, when asking about abortion’s morality, the number saying immoral in Pew’s poll is much higher than Gallup!? Why? It asks a concrete question about having an abortion morally wrong or morally acceptable, as opposed to asking about abortion in the abstract. Almost two and one-half times as many people say having an abortion is morally wrong (44%) as say it is morally acceptable (19%).

Second, he repeats (and it is important that he does) that unlike other controversial “social issues,” support/opposition does not fall along predicable lines:

And unlike on many other issues, abortion does not produce huge differences in opinion between men and women; among whites, blacks and Hispanics; or across different generations.

You can read Leonhardt’s post which is part of his newsletter.

Categories: Abortion
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