Political Animal


February 06, 2012 1:48 PM Polling on Abortion and the “Why” Issue

By Ed Kilgore

I’d add a footnote to the robust discussion Rich Yeselson touched off yesterday in response to Ross Douthat’s column citing public opinion on abortion as a reason to welcome the Komen Foundation’s effort to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.

Anyone who has ever looked at the issue seriously and objectively typically reaches two conclusions on public opinion about abortion: it hasn’t really changed a whole lot since Roe v. Wade, yet you can get different numbers by asking questions about abortion in different ways. Large pluralities of Americans appear to favor making some abortions legal and others illegal, and connecting those views to a “pro-choice” or “pro-life” label in a particular survey can produce an illusory shift in public opinion. Contra Douthat’s claim that media elites can’t talk about abortion without revealing their pro-choice biases, there’s actually been a lot of silly hype over the last few years about a shift to a “pro-life majority” based on polls that include vague loaded language.

But a third factor in abortion opinion is a bit less evident in the topline numbers: Americans who do not neatly fit into hard-core pro-choice or pro-life categories seem to care a great deal about why abortions occur, and this considerably adds to the number who refuse to say they support legalized abortion in all or even most cases. Such specious but often-discussed reasons for abortion as sex-selection, “convenience,” or willful negligence in practicing birth control do not go over very well. But when more plausible grounds for an abortion are cited, the pro-choice numbers go up very rapidly. Thus, at the height of the “partial-birth abortion” furor in the early part of the last decade, even as stable majorities supported a ban, 60% of respondents (in the one poll that bothered to ask) favored a “health” exception—an exception universally denounced by anti-choicers as making a ban completely meaningless.

Another confusing factor in public opinion on abortion involves the relative intensity of strongly pro-choice and strongly anti-choice voters, which presumably makes the impact of the latter on the political system (and certainly on the Republican Party) larger. If you think about it for half a minute, it should be obvious that pro-choice Americans defending the status quo will naturally be less agitated than people who think (to one degree or another) the country is tolerating mass homicides. But it should be equally obvious that once anti-choicers begin to succeed in restricting abortion rights (as is occurring in many states right now), and when the Supreme Court looks near to overturning or drastically restricting the scope of Roe (as might well become apparent if the next president is Republican and a pro-Roe Justice retires, or even earlier, given Justice Kennedy’s unpredictable views), the intensity scales will likely move closer to balance. More importantly, if the fundamental right to choose becomes the central issue, instead of all the conditions craftily developed by anti-choicers to achieve a strategic advantage, the underlying majority—not a huge one, but a real one—favoring legalized abortion will also re-emerge with greater clarity.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • K in VA on February 06, 2012 2:08 PM:

    I remember the days before Roe. I remember college friends who knew to the dollar what it cost to go here or there to get an abortion, either abroad or, if you didn't have the money, in some remote American location. I knew a few young women who were butchered by back-alley abortion hacks, and I knew of others made ill by ineffective but lethal drugs and home remedies. And I knew many, many girls and women who had to abandon education and jobs when they bore children they didn't want.

    Male politicians, mostly, would take us back to those days. Women with available funds will be able to go abroad, or will know someone who knows someone who knows of a doctor or nurse who is probably safe. Mostly, though, we'll go back to poor women being butchered, lives being shattered, and many, many unwanted babies born unwanted into their own lives of poverty and despair.

    Aside from zealots and pandering politicians, is this what America really wants? We who want women to own their own bodies need to work harder now. Before it's too late. Before people younger than I have to live through an error I wish I could forget.

  • Burr Deming on February 06, 2012 2:13 PM:

    One problem in the abortion debate is that no position seems possible that does not involve at least some absurdity.

  • DAY on February 06, 2012 2:16 PM:

    Even the most backward, illiterate dropout knows how pregnancy occurs. And, except for the "Every Sperm is Sacred" crowd, birth control can prevent an unwanted child.
    Sex education -and the pills, coils, and condoms that go with it -can make abortions a rare event.

  • Hedda Peraz on February 06, 2012 2:20 PM:

    Abortion, Guns, Israel, and The Troops are the heart and soul of our fund raising newsletters.
    You Libs will have to pry the paper from our ink stained fingers!

  • TCinLA on February 06, 2012 2:27 PM:

    KinVA has it entirely right.

    There is an excellent article over at Salon about how the Komen event has finally brought out the people with the passion on our side, to discuss the war on women's health being run by the Right.

  • latts on February 06, 2012 2:29 PM:

    So basically Americans are pro-choice while reserving significant disapproval rights. I've argued this very point with anti-choice acquaintances, but they're mostly offended by my description of their Deep Philosophical Conclusions-- ones that they have no real standing to implement, mind you-- as mere disapproval.

    Moral vanity: it's the fast-food diet of the philosophically malnourished, but so much tastier than vegetables.

  • Ken D. on February 06, 2012 2:37 PM:

    The ultimate bottom line is this: will we ever see in this country an adequate anti-abortion consensus to impose -- and then enforce -- a criminal prohibition, with few or no exceptions? The answer is that question is "no". There is huge spectrum of people who won't label themselves pro-choice, but would not cross that Rubicon. Short of that, everything is shadow boxing -- of an elaborate, expensive and debilitating variety, but that is what it is. Anti-abortionism is a great little cause so long as it has no chance of winning; that is the key insight that the provocateurs within Komen missed to their severe detriment.

  • bdop4 on February 06, 2012 2:44 PM:

    No one WANTS to have an abortion. They just want control over their lives.

    The problem with the anti-choice is that most of them also oppose contraception, which ultimately creates the circumstances leading to an abortion.

    Rational people are against abortions and want to minimize the occurrence through effective access and use of contraceptives. The others, not so much.

  • dr2chase on February 06, 2012 3:03 PM:

    Might be interesting to do a poll on how people feel about divorce, and see how wording affects THAT response. Time goes by, we have friends, some of them get divorced, and our reaction is never, ever, anything but "oh, shit, how did that happen?". We're sure not "pro-divorce". But, should it be banned? Don't think so.

  • Rich on February 06, 2012 3:04 PM:

    NARAL and other advocates have done a terrible job of advocacy and really need to be called on the carpet for this. The anti-abortionists have relentlessly been on the offensive for 40 years. The pro-abortion side has failed to do the basics like remind people how common abortion really is and has always been. There is still tremendous guilt and shame attached to abortion and putting putting it in the context of real people, people willing to come out of the closet, including celebs would go a long way toward changing this. So would an offensive effort to increase access. A well run fight, even if it's not successful may help galvanize people who've watched advocates behave like typical K Streeters. NARAL was run by the same people for decades. It nice to see some change at the top, but there needs to be a change in tactics to go with it.

  • schtick on February 06, 2012 3:10 PM:

    They call themselves pro-life. They are against abortion, but for the killing of the doctors that perform abortions, they are for the death penalty, killing innocent people in wars and against any and all education for prevention of pregnancy. The correct label is anti-choice.
    Keep those sluts in poverty! Don't give them an education, don't give them jobs, don't give them food stamps, don't give them any kind of welfare, don't give them any opportunities to get out of that ditch just so the people that DO get abortions can get rid of their guilt by pointing at the sluts that can't to show what happens when the rich repubs don't take care of them.
    It's all projection. Do as I say, not as I do. The tealiban have an oath to it.
    Planned Parenthood has prevented more pregnancies by contraceptives than they have helped abort. End of story.
    So what spin is Komen giving for ending grants to Johns Hopkins? I'd love to kick open the closet door of everyone on that board at Komen. I bet there are some really interesting skeletons in there.

  • Zorro on February 06, 2012 3:10 PM:

    While I have a general distaste for Clintonian triangulation, it did lead to what I think is the way a plurality of Americans want abortions to be: safe, legal, and rare.

    You keep abortion safe by keeping it legal and well-regulated. As has been amply documented, when you make something illegal, you don't eliminate it, you merely give up any change of regulating it for safety. And, as far as keeping it rare, that's where the availability of effective birth control comes into play.

    Of course, most so-called "pro-lifers" also oppose birth control, which which reveals their true agenda as being more anti-woman than pro-life.


  • Mimikatz on February 06, 2012 4:03 PM:

    The post and most comments have it right. For a minority abortion is an existential issue and an organizing principle of their politics. They are rigid and ideological and on both extremes of the issue. But for most people it is a sad event that is sometimes preferable to the alternatives. I have met very few women for whom it was a easy thing. The divorce analogy is particularly apt.

    Birth control and taking responsibility are clearly preferable, but folks who don't want women to control their sexuality make rational approaches to preventing unwanted pregnancy almost impossible. Why does Planned Parenthood do so many abortions? Because too few other doctors will, too few health care providers, educators and parents provide the education and support and access to contraception that would let us treat pregnancy in a rational way, and in addition EVERY form of birth control sometimes fails, because technology isn't perfect, physiology is complicated and pe pole are human.

    And the Komen fight does show that the anti-Planned Parenthood position is much, much less popular than the uncomfortable with abortion position.

  • Trollop on February 06, 2012 5:55 PM:

    As a gay man I have little to add here, not because I'm gay but, because I can't carry a child. This decision should only concern women (and their little "miracles"). It's not like there aren't already 7 billion people on the planet.. Komen and other men can suck it!

  • joanneinDenver on February 06, 2012 6:50 PM:

    Let me tell you my credentials to speak on this issue. I am mother, a feminist,
    I served as a Volunteer in South America working with poor pregnant women,
    I am an ex-catholic (read in the paper the priest that taught religion to our child was a known pedophile) and of course, pro-life and pro civil rights. I acknowledge that Roe gave women an absolute civil right to an abortion in her first trimester. This is the only civil right that is gender based and my personal conflict is my loyalty to the constitution as well as my belief that life needs to be protected from conception forward. But, the abortion debate is not about abortion; it is not even about women, it is about power.

    The so-called right to life movement abandoned the pursuit for a Human Life Amendment back in 1994 when republicans used the issue to win the Congress in the mid-term elections. It is far more useful for the republicans to keep the issue alive for money and as a political wedge. The implications of a Human Life Amendment to a the federal constitution would be dire for right wingers because the only way to protect life from the moment of conception is to support and nurture the mother.

    A Human Life Amendment would empower the pregnant woman to claim resources and consideration far beyond what is available to women, today, and could give pregnant women tremendous power. It would strengthen the ability of the federal government to protect such women.

    This is one reason that the republicans do NOT favor such an amendment.
    The republican stated strategy is to call for the overturn of Roe and to return the issue of abortion to the individual states. That means that each state would defined what is a person. This would return us to days of Dred Scott.

    But this strategy is absolutely critical to the Republican greater goal of reducing the ability of federal government to define and protect civil rights. The strategy is also seen in the "Fourteenth Amendment Movement." This is a far right agenda that calls for the Congress to reinterpret the 14th Amendment to eliminate the so-called anchor baby citizenship and to severely restrict the ability of the federal government to enforce "due process" and "equal protection of the laws."

    Politically, the men on the right know what they are doing. I no longer recognize the pro-life women that I once worked with to promote a Human Life Amendment. This women are filled with anger. They do not act independently.

    The women I know on the left are conflicted because abortion is awful and having your life beyond your own control is also awful. In Roe, the justices imposed a male pattern of reproduction on women and woman have been struggling ever since. These are my thoughts based on my experience and my knowledge of the pro-life movement. I respect the right of other women to take other positions. Men? Not so much.

    Finally, if the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe on a Friday in June by declaring life begins at conception, I guarantee that on Saturday morning every Big Pharma would market an 100% effective male contraceptive.

  • Anonymous on February 06, 2012 7:02 PM:

    Day: I disagree somewhat. There ARE people in the US --especially 9-12 year old girls who are entering puberty earlier than ever but many of whom are not educated by parents or schools about it--who do not really understand how pregnancy happens. They are particularly vulnerable. I agree that effective education and contraception will make abortion a lot less frequent, but I would add that abortion needs to be a legal option because contraception doesn't ALWAYS work as it's supposed to even when all the directions are followed (our bodies can be mysterious and statistics-defying, and drugs/chemicals don't work the same on every single body), and of course, humans are humans and don't always follow the directions to a T even when they mean to. I recall that it was ILLEGAL in 1968 for a doctor in Wisconsin (and probably many other states) to prescribe contraceptives for an unmarried woman. Agree with K in VA, we can't go back to those horrid days.

  • Jean on February 06, 2012 11:55 PM:

    As a mother of 3 children from age 29 to 39, from conversations with my kids and their friends of this younger generation, I've come to learn from them that there is an entire generation - their generation - who considers themselves both pro-life AND pro-choice. But if asked on a poll, would likely say they are pro-life.

    But to them, that does NOT mean that they are not also pro-choice. As my kids explained to me, they grew up in an era never experiencing a time where abortion wasn't legal. They're pro-life because, after all, who doesn't value life? But they're ALSO very much pro-choice - strongly believing such a personal decision belongs to no one but but the pregnant woman.

  • esaud on February 07, 2012 10:18 AM:

    1. Non-specific, feel-good labels like pro-life may be appealing in the abstract, but invariably when the questioning is specific, more liberal positions prevail.

    2. One thing this whole dust-up clarified for me is the extent to which Republicans need the anti-abortion platform, which explains some of the ferocity and tenacity of their fight.

    Without abortion, there is not a single issue that allows Republicans to take any moral high ground. They are against medicare, safety net program, social security, pro death penalty, militaristic, against anti poverty programs, education, etc.

    Anti abortion is the sole issue that makes them sound vaguely human, and in context, exposes them for the mewling, sanctimonious hypocrites thay are.

  • max on February 07, 2012 11:15 AM:

    On a positive note, the right-wing hick from Georgia just resigned from Komen. Good riddance, but it won;t be enough. They will probably be unable to undue the damage to their brand, which it turns out, is probably a good thing.

  • theAmericanist on February 07, 2012 11:34 AM:

    Esaud writes: "Non-specific, feel-good labels like pro-life may be appealing in the abstract, but invariably when the questioning is specific, more liberal positions prevail."

    That's simply not true.

    As John Sides observes in his analysis of polling data ON THIS PAGE (ctfl), when you drill down, there is no pro-choice majority -- at all.

    The reason the polls are so badly drawn (and worse-reported) is because they tend to reflect the framing of each extreme, which isn't how the vast majority of the public thinks about these issues. But one thing is VERY clear -- there is no pro-choice majority, if you actually test for what "pro-choice" means, i.e., that a woman has an absolute right to kill her baby at any time up through birth itself.

    You can get at this simple, clear piece of data in various ways -- you can ask pro-choice framing, like rape or incest, or you can ask pro-life framing, like sex-selection: and you get at most a solid 20% on either end.

    But no one seriously proposes that "except for sex selection" is a pro-choice position, because it denies a woman the right to choose to kill her baby if she doesn't like its gender.

    So there is NO pro-choice majority. Period.

  • JoanneinDenver on February 07, 2012 3:28 PM:

    Again, I stipulate that there are real constitutional issues involved and I look forward to a judicial decision on the issue of federally mandated health insurance coverage for all employees, regardless of the religious affiliation of the employer.

    However, let us pause for a moment and observe the intuitive, spontaneous response of the Catholic clergy and their spokespeople. Outraged that their
    ecclesiastic prerogatives are being questioned, the bishops and the priests are in full fledged media and political war against the Obama administration enlisting their republican allies and others who speak with sanctimonious bluster.

    Contrast this response to the response when the abuse of children by catholic clergy became known. There was no intuitive response to help the children by the catholic clerical establishment. Again, the response was egocentric, bordering on the very "disordered" personality effect that they claim was associated with homosexuality. The concern was for, again, their ecclesiastic prerogatives and their institutional comfort. These men, in my experience, see women as primarily available to satisfy male sexual needs and children as sometimes collateral damage.

    There was nothing in their response to the spiritual, as well as the physical and emotional destruction of children and their families, that indicated that these men believed in any God, let alone a just One. I am sick to death of them.