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Caveat lector: the true results of polling are in the small print.

THE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS v. Wade (1973) and Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992) clearly established that abortion is a legal option for women, not to be restricted in the first trimester of pregnancy, but the decisions do allow states to add restrictions later in pregnancy. Public opinion polling has demonstrated repeatedly that while Americans are in disagreement about the conditions under which they believe abortion should be available, few would outlaw them altogether. But the court rulings have not ended the controversy surrounding the issue, as abortion opponents continue to push for more restrictions, and supporters of abortion rights continue to fight back.

Public opinion surveys often try to reduce an issue to a simple question on support or opposition--and abortion is no exception. For example, a 2002 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll revealed that 59% of voters want to "let stand" the decision that "made abortion in the first trimester legal," while only 27% want it overturned. (1) But in reality, of course, there is a lot more to Roe and Casey. And views on abortion are complicated by a host of circumstances, personal morality, religious beliefs, advances in technology and medicine and probably other factors.

In the US, we have a long track record of polling attitudes on abortion, including some routinely published survey results that probe the issue and help distinguish the nuances in Americans' views concerning abortion by using a variety of questions. To some extent these surveys reflect the many shades of gray in American attitudes toward abortion. However, it is also interesting that the polling commonly reported in the media does not ask about abortion in ways that reflect actual public policy.

Starting in 1975, a question gave respondents to surveys three options: "Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?" The results of this basic question have remained very consistent over the last thirty years--with small percentages taking extreme pro and anti stances, and most people saying basically, "It depends." The graph below shows how consistent those views have remained and how large a number take the middle position that abortion should be legal some of the time but not always.

Beginning in the 1990s, pollsters refined their questions to get a better reading on this middle group. In the case of the Gallup Organization, respondents who answer "legal only under certain circumstances" began to be asked a follow up: "Do you think abortion should be legal in most circumstances or only in a few circumstances?"

For example, in the Gallup poll in October 2003, about a quarter approves of abortion being legal under any circumstances. Combining those who say legal under "all" with those "under most," we find 40% generally in favor of a liberal abortion law. Only a quarter disapproves under all circumstances. (3)

The survey question that is routinely used offers the respondent a choice that is a more liberal option--"legal under any circumstances"--than what the federal law actually allows, i.e., states can restrict abortion after the first trimester. So while it is useful to find that there is a significant minority of at least a quarter of the public that responds positively to the "under any circumstances" option, this is not one that is in play in the courts, legislatures or local hospitals.

Other questions have tried to mirror the Supreme Court's framing of the issue by asking about trimesters and what is regarded as acceptable at different stages. These questions help reveal that the public's opinion on abortion varies depending on when and why, but again the questions are often not on target. For example, only 10% say third trimester abortions should be illegal--when the question simply asks if abortion should be legal at that point. However, the questions oversimplify the issue. Questions that specify reasons for an abortion in the third trimester reveal a very different picture, demonstrating that a majority supports the right to abortion in the third trimester when the woman's life is in danger (75%) or the pregnancy is caused by rape or incest (59%). (5) But, alas, in this formulation--a series of circumstances in the third trimester--the questioners sometimes leave out the health of the woman.

It should he noted that the Gallup Organization did include the woman's health in a 2003 series, but did not specify third trimester. Under this more ambiguous question, 77% believe abortion should be legal "when the woman's physical health is endangered." And indeed the survey also found 63% support abortion when the woman's "mental health is endangered."

Perhaps the most extreme case of survey questions that need clarification are those using temps that suggest an abortion has something to do with the birthing process. In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, which according to a doctor's court testimony effectively bans the large majority of abortions doctors perform as early as 12 or 15 weeks into pregnancy, except when the life of the woman is at risk. Surveys that use this non-medical and misleading term find, not surprisingly, that Americans support the ban. However, as we have already seen, when asked specifically whether third trimester abortions should be allowed if the woman's life is in danger or if the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest, strong majorities believe abortion should be legal. In essence, it is the framing of the question that determines the outcome. The reader should beware: when reading survey results, ask to see the whole question.
Table 1: When should abortion be legal in the first and third
trimesters? (6)

Now I'm going to read some specific situations under which an abortion
might be considered in the LAST THREE MONTHS of pregnancy. Thinking
specifically about the THIRD trimester, please say whether you think
abortion should be legal in that situation, or illegal. How about


When the woman's life is endangered 82% 75%
When the pregnancy is caused by rape/incest 72% 59%
When the child would be born with a 60% 48%
life-threatening illness
When the child would be born mentally disabled 50% 38%
When the woman does not want the child for any 41% 24%


(1) Fox News/Opinion Dynamics. January 9-10, 2002, N = 900 voters. The 1973 Supreme Court decision called Roe v. Wade made abortion in the first three months of pregnancy legal. Do you think the Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade or let it stand?

(2) The Gallup Organization. Most recent: October 2003, N = 1006 adults. "Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?"

(3) The Gallup Organization. October 2003, N = 1006 adults.

(4) The Gallup Organization. October 2003, N = 1006 adults. "[In certain circumstances] do you think abortion should be legal in most circumstances or only in a few circumstances?"

(5) The Gallup Organization. May 2003, N = 1014.

(6) The Gallup Organization. May 2003, N = 1014.

NANCY BELDEN is the founding partner and ALEXIS WADE is a research assistant at Belden Russonello & Stewart, a research and communications consulting firm. Nancy is also president elect of the American Association for Public Opinion Research.
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Author:Wade, Alexis
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Previous Article:Framing the debate: saving women's lives.
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