Misleading and Uniformative: Some Thoughts on a Recent Abortion Poll

012813I like many of you heard of a recent Pew Research Center survey on Abortion (released just before the March for Life) that presents discouraging results. The very title of their release was trumpeted by secular Media: Most Oppose Overturning Abortion Decision. That was the lead and really the only thing the secular media wanted to hear.

The actual Pew report is a lot more difficult to read and the results are hard to compare with other surveys since the wording of the questions is never held constant. For example, the exclusion of rape/incest clauses makes for different results. Like it or not most Americans are more sanguine about abortions in cases of rape and incest (rare though such cases are). Whether respondents are given such distinctions makes a difference, as do other factors. For example, many if not most Americans favor any number of restrictions on Abortion short of a total ban and, depending on how the questions are asked, the restrictions they favor come close to a general exclusion of Abortion as a legal option. Thus there are many subtleties in the context and wording of questions.

You can see the full Pew Report here: Roe v. Wade at 40 Frankly the report is bewildering to my eyes, pointing in many different directions and broken into so many categories. It is hard to draw any real conclusions at least to my amateur statistician eyes.

Ramesh Ponnuru writing in National review on-line has some of the following observations of the Pew Report that also help place the survey in context and which raise the problem of leading questions flawed premises that plague such surveys. His remarks are in bold black italics, my comments are plain red text. His full article is Here: How Not to Read Abortion Polls

Actually, Pew did not find that support for Roe has been increasing. It found less support for Roe than it did in 2005, which appears to be the last time it asked the question. The ABC/Washington Post poll also found declining support for Roe between 2005 and 2010.

But of course the lead headlines all suggest that support for legal abortion was growing, not declining. The impression on radio and TV news was that over 70% Americans want Roe to stay just as it is.

But the fact is that Roe and subsequent rulings that brought us Abortion on mere demand for all nine months of pregnancy has been steadily eroding as an unabridged legal right. This is because Americans, at many state levels, are insisting on and getting increasing restrictions both on the abortion industry, and the right to unrestricted abortion for all nine months.

Americans do not in practice provide unqualified support for Roe and abortion on demand away from the poll takers survey. Late term abortion are far more repugnant to Americans, as are abortions for crass reasons such as sex-selection. There are many things that will influence how a person answers the survey.

Other polling does not find any leftward shift. The University of Michigan’s polling finds no clear change from 1990 through 2008. The CBS/New York Times poll shows no movement between 2003 and 2012. Gallup shows no clear change in either direction from 2002 to 2012. (It also finds no pro-choice majority: In May of 2012, 59 percent of respondents told Gallup abortion should be legal in a few circumstances or illegal in all circumstances, while 38 percent said it should be legal in “all” or “most” circumstances.) Harris’s numbers show a movement in the pro-life direction from 1993 to 2009 on the question of under what circumstances abortion should be legal.

And here is a key point that makes surveys hard to read. Some surveys ask the question of support for Roe in an all or nothing, up or down fashion. Other surveys introduce circumstances. And it would appear that the circumstances make a lot of difference.

And when poll takers do not add any circumstances or qualifiers to the question it is less clear what qualifiers the respondents read into the question. For example, if a person is asked to vote up or down on Roe it is important to know if they think Roe allows abortion only in the first three months or if they know that Roe permits abortion right up to the last moment in the womb. Far fewer Americans support abortion in month 8 than in week 4. Further, far fewer Americans support abortion for sex-selection than due to the health of the mother.

Simply reporting that a percentage of Americans support or don’t support Roe is not really very informative.

Pollsters [often] include misinformation in their questions about Roe, as both the Pew and NBC/WSJ polls do. They suggest falsely that Roe limits the abortion license to the first three months of pregnancy. (The combined effect of Roe and its companion case Doe v. Bolton is to make abortion legal at any stage of pregnancy.) The latter poll even uses the phrase “completely overturn” in its question, a qualifier that can be expected to lower support for the option….what the Roe polls are probably picking up is that a strong majority of the public does not favor a ban on all first-trimester abortions.

Exactly, and while we may wish that Americans rejected abortion under ALL circumstances, we may have to be content to change hearts incrementally in this matter. It is at the outer edges that the pro-life progress is most evident. For, as noted above there is a steady string of legislative and legal victories at state levels that have sought to limit abortions. Gradually Americans are more comfortable that access to abortion at any stage for any reason should not be unrestricted. This may then lay the groundwork for further progress in a total change of heart and rejection of abortion at all stages  for more and more Americans.

Maybe it will turn out that the public is becoming more supportive of abortion. I’d wait to see more evidence before calling that trend, which may not exist at all, “clear.

Yes, it seems clear that the media rush to publicize the Pew results simplistically was likely more illustrative of their own views than of what this limited result actually shows. Shame on Pew as well for their leading headline which probably was aimed more at publicity than careful analysis.

More the complexity of this issue was discussed a year and half ago on this blog when a Gallup Poll released then said that 61% of Americans want all, or most abortions, to be declared illegal. Even there, the nature of the questions had to be carefully factored in. You can read more of my blog from then Here: Americans Want most Abortion to be Illegal.

Fair is fair. We continue to have a battle on our hands, be I still contend that we are steadily eroding support for abortion at the edges and more Americans want more restrictions. We are heading in the right direction. Further embryology and medical science in general are on our side. Increasingly, with 3-D sonograms and the like the reality of life in the womb is evident to all but the most hardened.

Onward fellow pro-lifers. Time + evidence favor our cause. Do not be discouraged by misleading reports and undistinguished data.

For those of us in pro-life work there are important precedents to be seen in the fight against slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and even in the anti-smoking campaign. Consistent, persistent and organized action brings eventual results. This is often a battle for inches, but inches become yards, and yards, miles. Keep a inching alone like a poor old inch worm, Jesus will come by and by.

5 Replies to “Misleading and Uniformative: Some Thoughts on a Recent Abortion Poll”

  1. Mark Twain popularized the phrase “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” When googling the phrase to be sure I was attributing it correctly (Twain himself didn’t claim it), Wikipedia made the following reference that I think is illuminating, not just for this Pew poll but for any presentation of data:


  2. To add to my previous comment (I had to pause because the coffeepot was whistling and the cat was demanding a lap)

    The statistics classes I took as part of my undergraduate and graduate-school curricula were among the most useful courses I took – not because I do any rigorous analyses as part of my day-to-day work, but because they taught me to read survey or study results with a critical eye. The design flaws described by Mr. Ponnuru in this particular poll are by no means unique, and we thus should view ANY opinion poll with a healthy dose of skepticism.

    One potential failing of polls in general is that one has no way to know whether a respondent is being honest or giving what s/he believes is a socially acceptable response. Given the current social-political climate, particularly in the DC region, expressing support for protecting life or traditional marriage may be uncomfortable enough for some that they may not be honest in their responses to telephone surveys.

  3. Opinion polls have to be used carefully as the post states. Who you ask and the exact words used will impact the result. The error rate of any poll does not address the true quality of the data. It is simply a calculation of the statistical error but presupposes sampling techniques that truly map the population being sampled. But, that being said, this is one area where the opinion poll is really telling us how much more evangelization we need to do. Abortion is an abosolute wrong. So we need to educate whatever percentage of the population on this evil. We need to listen to the concerns about why someone would support this and work to address the real concerns (poverty, stigma) that place women and men in a place where they feel that killing of a child is really the best option. If it is true that a majority of people support abortion then we have a very target rich environment of people to evangelize with love and education.

  4. Monsignor, I posted your video along with another fetal development video in the chat room where I discuss theology/religion with chessplayers. Those were the first fetal development videos I had ever watched myself. They are beautiful.

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