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25 Years of Abortion Polls: Support for Pro-Life Policies and Legislation Growing.

In Public Opinion about Abortion, a small but valuable book that reviews nearly 25 years of abortion polling in America, authors Karlyn Bowman and Everrett Ladd declared, "Public opinion on abortion has been remarkably stable over the past quarter century."

Published in 1997, the book may have been compiled a few months early, since more recent polls not included in the study show some slight but significant movement favoring the pro-life side. In no small measure that upswing is a result of the enormously significant debate over partial-birth abortion.

Movement in the Pro-Life Direction

For years, one could ask the same questions and pretty much expect the same answers. Is abortion murder? In different polls from 1989 up to 1995, about 40%-43% said "yes," while about 47%-51% said "nor

By contrast, people were also asked, Should abortion be legal in all circumstances, only some, or not at all? Gallup polls taken from April 1990 up to September 1995 consistently showed over 30% saying that they believed abortion should be "legal under any circumstances." During roughly the same time period, from 1989 up to January 1995, according to a series of polls done for CBS News and the New York Times, there were never more than 60% willing to impose any limits on abortion.

However, recent polls by both groups show these numbers changing significantly.

Since October 1995, the CBS News/New York Times poll, with one exception, has consistently shown over 60% majorities wanting "stricter limits" on abortion or wanting abortion not to be permitted at all. In its most recent poll from January 1998, 45% wanted stricter limits on abortion while 22% believed it should not be permitted at all -- a total of 67%, the highest figure shown since CBS News and the NY Times began asking this question in 1989.

The Gallup organization, which has tracked this issue even longer, shows fewer people ready to accept the current policy of abortion on demand today than at any time since the 1970s, when abortion was just beginning to become a part of the national experience. In its most recent poll published in USA Today (1/22/98), only 23% were willing to endorse the idea that abortion should be legal under any circumstances. A total of 75% said either that abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances (58%) or illegal in all circumstances (17%).

What people mean when they say that abortion should be legal "only under certain circumstances" is significant. Gallup has not released any further data on its latest poll, but in an August 1997 poll asking the same basic questions, it asked those giving this response to specify whether they thought that abortion "should be legal under most circumstances" or "only in a few circumstances." Of the 61% in the August 1997 poll who originally said that abortion should be legal "only under certain circumstances," four out of five believed that abortion should be legal "only in a few circumstances." Therefore, that 61% then breaks down to just 12% who would allow abortion under "most circumstances" and 48% who would allow abortion only in a "few circumstances" (rounding keeps the numbers from adding up precisely). Thus, a total of 63% would either make abortion illegal in all circumstances (15%) or allow it only in a few circumstances (48%)! In the August 1997 poll, those who favor abortion on demand, the 22% who felt abortion should be legal "under any circumstances," together with those who would allow it for "most circumstances" (12%) total only 34%.

More people consider abortion to be murder. Whereas only 40% of those responding to the CBS/NY Times poll had considered abortion "the same thing as murdering a child" in July 1989, fully half saw it as murder in January 1998. In 1989 47% said abortion was not murder "because the fetus really isn't a "child" but by 1998 that number had dropped all the way to 38%.

The reason for these shifts is not hard to fathom. Before the Supreme Court abruptly overturned the abortion laws of all 50 states in Roe v. Wade in 1973, there was a general presumption in favor of life in the United States. Polls taken in the 1970s confirm this. According to surveys conducted by the University of Michigan for the National Election Studies, a total of 57% in 1972 believed abortion should either "never be permitted" (11%) or allowed "only if the life and health of the woman is in danger" (46%). Seventeen percent thought, "Abortion should be permitted, if due to personal reasons, the woman would have difficulty in caring for the child," and 27% said, "Abortion should never be forbidden, since one should not require a woman to have a child she doesn't want."

The University of Michigan conducted two polls in 1980. In the first, it asked the same questions as they did in the 1972 poll, obtaining similar results: 10% saying abortion should never be permitted, 44% saying permitted only if the life or health of the woman is in danger, 18% willing to permit abortion in cases of "personal difficulty," and 27% saying abortion should never be forbidden. A shift of about three or four points from the pro-life to the pro-abortion side, but still probably within the margin of error.

But in the second 1980 poll, the University of Michigan changed the wording, prefacing each question by referring to the law and dramatically rewriting the last option to cast abortion as a matter of "personal choice." The shift in opinion between the two polls is astounding.

In the second poll, while 11% still said, "By law, abortion should never be permitted," only 32% said, "The law should permit abortion only in cases of rape, incest, or when the woman's life is in danger" -- a total of only 43% leaning toward a pro-life position. [Remember that in 1972, 57% would have permitted abortion only for the mother's life or health or not at all.]

Eighteen percent said "The law should permit abortion for reasons other than rape, incest, or danger to the woman's life, but only after the need for abortion has been clearly established," while 35% in this poll agreed that "By law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice" (emphasis added). Overnight, the terms of the debate were changed by the wording of the questions.

That rhetoric held sway for some time. America was repeatedly presented with abortion as an issue of women's personal freedom. Yet polls now indicate that Americans finally seem to be reexamining the facts and their views and becoming more pro-life again.

Why? What is responsible for this change in public opinion? Looking at the time frame surrounding this transformation (1995 and 1996), one is drawn to the inescapable conclusion that NRLC's campaign to stop partial-birth abortions must have had something -- probably a great deal -- to do with it.

That campaign, begun in June 1995, made many people consider something that the media had let them ignore: the humanity of the unborn child. If the fetus was a "blob of tissue," why were there pictures of fully formed arms and legs and bodies and how could there be any talk of suctioning out the baby's brains?

This, coupled with the widespread use of technology such as ultrasound and fetal heartbeat stethoscopes and the distribution of millions of pieces of pro-life literature, helped to confirm for many not only the humanity of the child, but also the fundamental immorality of abortion.

That result showed up not only in the polls, but in the declining number of abortions annually performed in the United States (see NRL News, 12/9/97, or contact the NRL Educational Trust Fund and ask for the Abortion Statistics factsheet). Researchers who track abortion statistics have specifically mentioned "changes in attitude concerning abortion" as one of the possible factors behind that decline.

Phony Polls

There are, of course, still those polls out there that tell us that Americans support abortion "rights." But upon closer inspection there are serious problems with the factual assumptions of these surveys. The most famous example is polls that supposedly show support for the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.

A January 1998 Louis Harris and Associates poll declared that a majority of Americans (57%) supported the Supreme Court's decision in Roe. But Harris, like several others who asked this question, radically mischaracterized the Court's decision by talking about it as applying only to the first three months of pregnancy (the Court's decisions in Roe and the companion case Doe v. Bolton legalized abortion for all nine months of pregnancy for virtually any reason).

An Associated Press (AP) poll appearing in the January 20, 1998, edition of the New York Times made the same fundamental error. Respondents were told that "The Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that a woman can have an abortion if she wants one at any time during the first three months of pregnancy" (emphasis added) and asked if they favored or opposed that ruling. The AP's numbers supporting Roe were actually lower than Harris's, with only 47% favoring it versus 43% who said they were opposed.

One reason the Harris poll may have gotten a higher percentage of people saying they supported Roe was that it also put the Court's decision in terms of allowing the abortion decision (in the first three months) to be made by "the woman and her doctor" (emphasis added). This invariably adds the authority and prestige of the medical profession to the abortion decision and gives a subtle, but false, implication that the abortion may be medically warranted. Invoking medical authority obviously skews the data.

The More Specific You Are, The More Pro-Life The Answers Are

The way in which those promoting abortion have always been able to get the numbers to "support" their position is by being vague and misleading and trying to keep the debate at the level of sloganeering. That's why so many polls claim that more Americans are "pro-choice" than pro-life. Even those numbers are starting to crumble, though.

In the latest CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll (January 22, 1998), only 48% of those polled called themselves "pro-choice," while a full 45% identified themselves as "pro-life." This represents a significant turnaround from September 1995, when the same poll found 56% describing themselves as "pro-choice" and just 33% "pro-life."

However, when asked the specific circumstances under which they think abortion should be allowed and the specific legislation they would support, Americans again demonstrated that they are not supportive of the current practice of abortion on demand. In fact, a majority opposes the overwhelming majority of the abortions that are performed. Recent polls show that while large majorities continue to support abortion for cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother (which statistics have shown comprise, at very most, no more than 3% to 7% of all abortions), they are much less supportive of abortion in other circumstances.

Asked if they think abortion should be legal in the case where "a woman does not want the baby," 56% of those responding to the AP's January 1998 poll said "no." Only 36% were willing to say "yes."

While just 50% in a 1989 NY Times/CBS News poll said abortion was not alright if a woman did not want to marry the baby's father, by 1998 the number opposing abortion for that reason had climbed to 62%. In that same 1998 poll, a clear majority, 54%, said abortion should not be allowed "if the family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children." Only a plurality, 49%, said so in 1989. Only 25% supported abortion if having the baby would interrupt the woman's career.

When asked whether they would endorse abortion "after fetal brainwaves are detected" (the sixth week of the baby's life) or "after the fetal heartbeat is begun" (approximately three weeks), 61% and 58%, respectively, told Wirthlin pollsters in the Family Research Council's 1998 poll that "abortion should not be permitted."

Support for Pro-Life Legislation Strong

The real test is what sort of pro-life legislation they are willing to support.

In the 1998 CBS News/NY Times poll, 79% indicated they favored 24-hour "waiting periods" for women considering abortion. This would give women the opportunity to reflect on their decisions and consider alternatives. The same poll found 56% in favor of viability testing, "requiring a test to make sure the fetus is not developed enough to live outside the womb before the woman could have an abortion."

Substantial majorities continue to favor parental involvement legislation. In the article on 1998 poll, the NY Times declared that "nearly 80 percent" supported parental consent measures, a figure which has remained steady for several years.

Gallup polls done for CNN and USA Today in 1996 came to similar conclusions. According to Gallup, 74% in 1996 were in favor of waiting periods; 86% favored a law requiring doctors to inform patients of alternatives to abortion (part of so-called "right to know" legislation); 74% favored a law requiring women under 18 to get parental consent; and 70% favored spousal notification measures.

Various polls put opposition to a constitutional amendment to make all abortions illegal at 76% (NY Times, 1998), 68% (Harris, 1989), and 64% (Yankelovich, 1996).

However, a January 21, 1998, poll by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops found that Americans would actually be willing to prohibit most abortions, with 53% saying either that abortion should not be allowed at all or allowed only in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment to the mother's life. The January 1988 FRC poll found 57% taking this position.

And as early as 1990 57% said in a Tarrance poll that they would support legislation "to prevent abortion as a method of birth control." Such legislation would outlaw approximately 90% of the abortions performed today.

Support for a partial-birth abortion ban is particularly strong. While a majority in the 1998 CBS News/NY Times poll said they had heard nothing or not much about the partial-birth abortion debates (and whose fault is that?), 73% thought these abortions should be illegal.

Are Pro-Lifers Just a Bunch of Grumpy Old Men?

There are still enormous myths about pro-lifers. For years, the pro-life movement has been portrayed as a bunch of old men trying to tell women what to do, but recent polls show that, if anything, women are more pro-life than are men.

The January 16, 1998, New York Times article releasing the results of its latest survey stated quite directly, "Neither age nor a person's sex appeared to have an effect on people's current views on abortion." The AP's January 20, 1998, account of its own poll offered a similar observation, saying, "Race and gender were not significant factors in determining opinion about abortion."

If there is a "gender gap," polls show that it is women, not men, who are more likely to oppose abortion! In the 1998 Wirthlin poll conducted for the Family Research Council (FRC), women consistently expressed a more pro-life position (61% willing either to prohibit abortion in all circumstances, to allow abortion only to save the life of the mother, or to allow abortion only in cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother) than did men (53% expressing a pro-abortion position). While middle-aged women were slightly more pro-abortion than those under 34 or over 55, in all age cohorts, women were more pro-life than men. The 1998 poll by the Catholic bishops found the same thing, with more women (58%) than men (50%) willing to outlaw most abortions.

According to the FRC poll, men are also more likely to think abortion improves male/female relationships, while the majority of women disagree.

Younger people, whose generation has taken such a hit from 25 years of abortion on demand, are increasingly likely to be pro-life as well. While those with higher incomes and high levels of education are typically more likely to support abortion, yearly nationwide surveys of college freshman done by researchers from UCLA have shown a decidedly pro-life trend, with just 54% currently supporting abortion, declining for the fifth year in a row, from a high of 65% in 1990. This is encouraging, given that the universities are one of the abortion industry's prime foci.

The most pro-life region of the country was the South, with 63% of those reporting a pro-life position.

It is often thrown in the face of pro-lifers that Protestants and Catholics are just as likely to support abortion or to have abortions as the rest of Americans. A November 5, 1996, Los Angeles Times poll offered an important qualification. While 48-q of Protestants, 46% of Catholics, and 41% of "other Christians" in the poll said that abortion should not be made illegal, those numbers were quite different when frequency of church attendance was factored in.

Support for unrestricted abortion among those who attended church regularly was only 34% for Protestants, 27% for Catholics, and 22% for other Christians.

Room for Improvement

While 50% in the latest CBS News/NY Times poll were willing to call abortion murder, 58% were still saying, "Abortion is sometimes the best course in a bad situation." However, that 58% undoubtedly includes many respondents who would allow abortion only in cases such as life of mother, rape, or incest.

There is work to be done. But there is reason to be hopeful.

Despite 25 years of abortion and heavy promotion of it by advocates and their allies in the media and politics, the American public is increasingly uncomfortable with the status quo of abortion on demand.

In the 1998 CBS News/NY Times poll, among those offering a reason why they thought most women have abortions, 49% said that that reason was not serious enough to justify an abortion (up from 41% in 1989). Forty-eight percent of those in the same poll said that it was too easy to get an abortion (versus only 10% that said it was too hard to get one).

Asked in that poll whether they thought of abortion as more of an issue involving a woman's ability to control her body or an issue involving the life of the fetus, 45% said the life of the fetus and 44% said control of a woman's body.

The fact that abortion is not just a bad thing for babies, but a bad thing for their mothers, has begun to take on the status of accepted wisdom. According to the FRC 1998 survey, a full 78% of Americans agreed that women who have abortions experience emotional trauma, such as grief and regret. Younger women, those under 34, are especially more likely to agree.

Abortion is no longer assumed to offer any real benefit to women Most adults (53%) said they believe that abortion hindered, rather than improved, male/female relationships by making it easier for men to avoid responsibility for pregnancy. Women (58%) were much more likely to say this than men (48%). Seventy percent of Americans said they do not believe that legalized abortion is necessary for women to pursue various educational and career goals.

There is a long way to go, but the tide is turning. The truth, slowly but surely, is coming out. Every abortion takes the life of an unborn child whose heart has begun to beat. Abortion is not a solution to a woman's problems. There is a better way.
COPYRIGHT 1998 National Right to Life Committee, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:O'Bannon, Randall K.
Publication:National Right to Life News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 11, 1998
Next Article:Right-to-Life Congressional Priorities for 1998: Statement by Douglas Johnson, NRLC Federal Legislative Director, January 22, 1998.

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