When it comes to polling, how you ask a question is always as important as the topic you are polling on. The nuance involved in simple phrasing and word choice is key to the reaction you will receive from your respondents, and almost any question can be manipulated in order to create the desired end result.
It’s with that understanding in mind that it makes so much sense that Americans can both be adamantly opposed to so called “late term” abortions, what anti-choice activists have dubbed any abortion done after the first trimester, even if the procedure is done weeks prior to the fetus’s ability to survive outside the womb.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll earlier this summer that asked about support for a potential 20 week abortion ban exemplifies this situation. The pollsters asked, “The U.S. Supreme Court said abortion is legal without restrictions in about the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. Some states have passed laws reducing this to 20 weeks. If it has to be one or the other, would you rather have abortions legal without restriction up to 20 weeks or up to 24 weeks?”
The question as it was written is disingenuous. There is almost no state that allows abortion without restriction up to 24 weeks in this country, instead restricting the procedure either by lack of available clinics, waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds or limits on the type of procedure that can be performed and who can do the termination as a result. There is little surprise that with that erroneous assertion in the poll itself, 56 percent of those who responded said they would support an earlier ban.
A National Journal poll shows that when the question is posed as “banning abortion after 20 weeks except in cases of rape and incest that are reported to the authorities,” the results turn out differently. In that case, only 48 percent support a ban. Results can also be manipulated even further by throwing in a disproven claim that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks post fertilization (it can’t), which in one Texas poll then put respondents in favor of a ban by a resounding 62 percent.
How the question is asked can lead to favorable results, as well. When Planned Parenthood did their own polling on a 20 week ban and supplied a variety of reasons a person might need a termination that late in a pregnancy, respondents were quite sympathetic and supported the decision. Two thirds of those questioned believed that if a woman’s health would be jeopardized by continuing the pregnancy she should be allowed to have an abortion, and about 60 percent said the same if the fetus were not viable or would have severe disabilities, or the pregnant person were a victim of sexual assault, as opposed to the other polls where the sexual assault must be reported to the authorities first.
Just as important as how a question is asked is how the results are interpreted. A Huffington Post poll showed that 49 percent of respondents said abortion was “morally wrong,” and 51 percent said that either it was morally acceptable, not a moral issue at all or that they were unsure how they felt. One conclusion that could be drawn: a small majority of the country does not believe abortion is morally wrong. The conclusion taken by anti-choice activists looking at a Pew Poll with identical results? “Pew Poll Shows Few Americans Find Abortion Morally Acceptable.”
In the end, abortion polling tells us very little about public opinion other than the fact that much of it can be easily manipulated, and that when presented with actual cases of those who need to end a pregnancy, a majority tends to support those individual decisions once they are presented in a less abstract manner. The results show why the decision should be left up to the patient and her provider, and why public opinion polling is too volatile to use as an excuse to limit her rights.
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