Does Abortion Polling Tell the Truth?

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The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) finally overturned Roe v. Wade in late June. The media has been in a frenzy, leftist states are preemptively enshrining nearly unlimited abortion, and Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate are desperately trying to legislate unrestricted abortion till birth. 

How does the public feel about all this? If you were to ask any of the groups listed above, they would confidently inform you that the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which overturned Roe, is very unpopular. They claim that a large majority of Americans want Roe “codified” into law and were devastated when the Woman’s Health Protection Act, a federal bill banning all Pro-Life laws and enshrining abortion through all nine months of pregnancy, failed to pass. 

Yet, the public polling data used to “prove” these sweeping claims is not as straightforward as they would have you believe. 

Here’s the truth: Pro-Lifers should not be worried about these polls. Even just a brief critical review reveals that the most recent polling on abortion only tentatively reflect reality. Polling is already a sensitive undertaking. It is always difficult to return a reliable result. With something as controversial as abortion it is especially easy to manipulate the results to confirm the surveyor’s own preconceived conclusions. 

The first thing to keep in mind is that public support does not dictate right and wrong, and should not influence the court’s determinations of the truth. Public opinion sways between extremes regularly and is by no means the arbiter of truth and morality. All polling should be examined through a critical lens. Especially now, as we begin to see what a post-Roe world really looks like and the anti-Life mainstream media continues to stoke apocalyptic fear and as emotions run incredibly high. 

The dirty secret about public surveys is that pollsters can consistently get the answers they want by framing their questions in biased ways. A question asking, “do you favor withdrawing troops to prevent further casualties?” is likely to get more support than one asking, “should we give up and go home?” Similarly, people might be more sympathetic to “reproductive rights” than “elective abortion.”

Uninformed respondents give uninformed responses. When it comes to abortion, this is frequently caused by the misconception, fostered by pro-abortion politicians and the media, that overturning Roe makes abortion illegal without exception in all 50 states. Polling that simply asks about support or opposition to Roe is therefore extremely unreliable. Many people understandably just don’t know what Roe was and what overturning Roe means.

A recent CNN poll taken before the Dobbs decision indicates that 31% of respondents were supportive of Roe being overturned, while 64% were opposed. Yet, the same poll shows that 42% want their state’s abortion laws to be more restrictive. Another poll, conducted by the Wall Street Journal about two months before the leaked Dobbs draft, indicates that a 48% plurality of respondents favor a 15-week abortion ban, and 42% would even favor a 6-week ban. 

Of course, pollsters don’t tell respondents that more restrictive abortion laws, especially anything like a 6-week or even a 15-week ban, are utterly incompatible with Roe. More than anything, the results from polls such as CNN’s indicate that there is a severe misunderstanding of Roe and of what sort of abortion policies it permits.

Providing limited answer choices also allows for even more manipulation in polling. In May, Gallup reported that 35% of Americans want abortion to be legal in all circumstances, 50% want it legal in some circumstances, and 13% want it illegal in all circumstances. 

Sounds like broad support for abortion right? Not quite. 

Closer examination of the data tells a different story. The polling questions are unclear; they make no mention of what exactly falls under “some circumstances.” A poll respondent, not wanting to express support for banning abortion in medically extreme cases like ectopic pregnancies, might respond that he supports abortion in “some circumstances.”

While many Pro-Lifers recognize the limits of this poll, anti-Life media can easily use it to “prove” that 85% of people support legal abortion. Yet, an examination of how those numbers were created demonstrates that the pro-abortion talking points are simply misleading to outright false.

Perhaps most revealing is a June 2022 (post-Dobbs) poll by the Harvard University Center for American Political Studies asking how respondents feel about the overturning of Roe. The pollsters did not simply ask how people felt about the SCOTUS decision, as polls that came before had framed the issue. Instead, the Harvard poll gave respondents more context and information, asking whether respondents support “the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs Wade, which allows each state to decide its own standards for abortion instead of a set right.” 55% of respondents said they oppose the decision, significantly lower than the widely-reported CNN number that 64% supported Roe while it was still active. 

The Harvard poll goes further by asking questions that most polls avoid. Harvard breaks down sentiments on abortion into several gestational intervals, from support only in cases of rape and incest to 9 months. 37% responded that their state should only allow abortion in cases of rape or incest. An additional 12% stated they want abortion banned after 6 weeks, and 23% responded after 15 weeks. That means that 72% of respondents were expressing support for abortion restrictions that would have been impossible under Roe. 

The poll also found that only 31% of respondents want abortion standards to be set by congress, while a 44% plurality want the question left to state legislatures. While the left cries that a majority of Americans oppose the Dobbs decision, polls such as Harvard’s indicate that Dobbs’ result of returning the abortion question to the states is more popular than they would like to admit. 

Taking the unpopular route, radical D.C. Democrats were just a few votes away from ramming through congress a law that would have banned all restrictions on abortion at any stage, a policy proved unpopular by every poll with enough honesty to ask the question. Clearly, pro-abortion Democrats don’t actually care about “public support” when it comes to legislating, a process that, unlike the judicial, is actually meant to make decisions largely representative of public opinion.

Even half a century after the Roe decision, public opinion on abortion has remained consistently and extremely divided. That is one certain conclusion we can derive from the various polls, biased or not. 

As Pro-Lifers continue to make great strides in the fight to defend Life, we must remain focused on our mission that is rooted in science and morality, and not allow ourselves to be confused or dismayed by twisted polls.

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