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When We Poll People About Abortion, We’re Usually Asking The Wrong Questions

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"When We Poll People About Abortion, We’re Usually Asking The Wrong Questions"

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Abortion Anniversary

CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Gallup is out with its annual polling on U.S. attitudes about reproductive rights, reporting that “Americans remain divided on the abortion issue, with 47 percent of U.S. adults describing their views as ‘pro-choice’ and 46 percent as ‘pro-life,’ continuing a pattern seen since 2010.” Pollsters also found that the people who say that abortion should either be legal in all cases or illegal in all cases has been creeping up, compared to the number of people who say it should be legal in some cases.

The new poll inspired some predictable coverage about how the country is increasingly polarized on abortion. Right-wing outlets claimed victory, pointing out that “just one fourth of Americans want abortion legal for any reason.” But that’s pretty misleading. It’s certainly true that public opinion on abortion remains divided — but we’re not getting a clear sense of Americans’ complicated feelings about the issue from these few polling questions.

There’s increasing evidence that the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” dichotomy doesn’t accurately reflect Americans’ complex attitudes about abortion, from both a moral and a legal perspective. Not everyone fits neatly into those two boxes — many people identify as both, and say their attitude about the procedure depends on each unique situation.

Gallup’s questions about the circumstances under which abortion should be legal are incredibly vague, allowing participants to select either “in all cases” or “in some cases.” But more detailed polling has found that very strong majorities of people support legal abortion when they’re presented with more specific examples, like when women have become pregnant from rape and when women will die unless they end their pregnancy. This holds true even for later abortion procedures, which most Americans say they oppose when they’re asked broadly about the issue; last year, a poll conducted by Planned Parenthood found that Americans actually support access to legal abortion after 20 weeks once they’re given more information about why some women may need an abortion after that point.

And on top of that, Americans’ personal views on abortion don’t always correspond with how they think it should be regulated. Some of the people who tell pollsters they’re “pro-life” don’t support overturning Roe v. Wade. In fact, about one in five Americans say that although they personally believe abortion is morally unacceptable, they don’t want to roll back the reproductive rights protected under Roe. Most religious groups actually take this stance.

Most importantly, the policy debate over abortion isn’t really about Americans’ personal moral feelings (even though that angle is certainly favored among anti-choice groups that seek to construe abortion as an intrinsic evil). In reality, the question is about what type of restrictions state and federal lawmakers should impose on the medical procedure. To that end, it’s probably more useful to look at polling about proposed abortion restrictions in different states.

As states have imposed an increasing number of laws targeting abortion, it’s been clear that public opinion is playing out quite differently than what Gallup’s poll would suggest — even in traditionally red states. New polling in Tennessee finds that three fourths of residents don’t favor giving the legislature more power to regulate abortion. Up to 69 percent of West Virginia voters thought their lawmakers had the wrong priorities when they approved a 20-week ban. And strong majorities of voters in Ohio, Texas, and North Carolina reported that they didn’t support the stringent new abortion restrictions that their states approved last year.

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