What “five facts about abortion” really tell us

By Dave Andrusko

ScienceisclearreEditor’s note. My family will be on vacation through the end of this week. I will be posting an occasional new story, but for the most part we will be re-posting columns that ran over the last year. Many will be strictly educational while some will about remind us of notable victories this legislative cycle.

At NRL News Today we do our best not only to bring you polling data about abortion but, in so doing, explain the why behind the responses. This is particularly important because so many questions that are asked are wildly misleading. Or, alternatively, the interpretation of the results simply does square with what people said.

Here are “5 facts about abortion,” from the Pew Research Center based, we are told, on Pew’s own polling. Let’s look at just two, #1 and #5.

#1 “More than six-in-ten (63%) U.S. adults say they would not like to see the Supreme Court completely overturn Roe v. Wade, while about three-in-ten (29%) want to see the ruling overturned. These figures have remained relatively stable for more than 20 years.“ [To be clear, this particular statement actually references polling done in early 2013.]

To begin with what is it that the respondent is told to comment on? “In 1973, the Roe versus Wade decision established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Would you like to see the Supreme Court completely overturn its Roe versus Wade decision, or not?”

40 years after Roe is handed down, we had a major research organization characterizing Roe’s holding of virtual abortion on demand “as established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy.” Although that canard should have been laid to rest at least a decade, if not more, ago, alas, it hasn’t. What would the response be if the question were asked in a fashion that represented Roe fairly?

So, if you radically underreport what Roe (and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton) concluded, it allows Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, to say that it is uncommon to see so little change in attitudes on a controversial issue. “They [attitudes] really haven’t changed a lot over the years which is kind of interesting because a lot of other social issues have changed a lot,” Dimock told Reuters.

While there has not been much change in the public’s response to this erroneously-posed question, much of the public still doesn’t know what Roe v. Wade was about (an ignorance that’s obviously not been remedied by groups like Pew).

As “fact” #3 noted, “Roughly six-in-ten Americans (62%) know that Roe v. Wade was a decision about abortion, but among adults under 30 years old, only 44% know.” Not noted is that 20% didn’t have a clue what the decision was about and 7% thought Roe was about school desegregation!

#5. “There’s a difference between what Americans think should be legal and what they think is moral. About half of Americans (49%) say that having an abortion is morally wrong, while 15% think it is morally acceptable and 23% say it is not a moral issue.”

As we noted above, it helps to get the answer you desire if you give your respondents a grossly inaccurate statement about abortion’s legality. Let’s dig a little deeply into #5 (which came from a survey published in August 2013).

*Only 13% of women said having an abortion was morally acceptable.

*Only 25% of self-described liberals said that having an abortion was morally acceptable.

* “Fully three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants consider having an abortion morally wrong, as do about two-thirds of Hispanic Catholics (64%). A majority of black Protestants (58%) and about half of white Catholics (53%) say the same.” And, of course, none of this reflects a truism of polling: those who attend church regularly are far less likely to find having an abortion morally acceptable than those who attend sporadically.

*The respondents in only two religious groups included more saying that having abortion is morally acceptable than morally acceptable: White mainline Protestants (38% said it was morally unacceptable) and the religiously unaffiliated (25% said having an abortion was morally unacceptable).

As always, if you are going to fully appreciate the public’s real opinion on any phase of abortion, you have to dig beneath the surface.