Do you know where most Americans stand on abortion? Thanks to the way that we’ve been polling on the issue for the past several decades, probably not.
Most media coverage on the subject would lead you to believe that abortion evenly splits the nation. According to pollsters, the country has barely budged on this issue since the procedure was first legalized in 1973. The leading polling organizations often refer to Americans’ views on abortion as “closely divided” and say this finding has been “stable” for decades. “The trend lines look about as flat as they can be,” Daniel Cox, the research director at the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, said on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Tresa Undem, who has more than a decade of experience conducting public opinion research for nonprofits, doesn’t think that’s true.
In partnership with Vox, Undem recently conducted an detailed poll on the subject that tells a quite different story than the one you typically see reflected in the headlines. On many topics related to abortion, Americans agree more than you might expect. “We, as pollsters, need to rethink how we measure public opinion on this issue,” Undem wrote in an op-ed accompanying her findings.
The problem stems from the way that we’ve been writing polls about abortion. For years, researchers have been asking Americans the wrong questions.
Most major pollsters ask Americans to indicate whether their beliefs align with one of the following four categories: Abortion should be legal in all cases; abortion should be legal in most cases; abortion should be illegal in most cases; or abortion should be illegal in all cases. Some polls also ask people whether they consider themselves and their policy positions to be “pro-choice” or “pro-life.”
Kate Stewart, a public opinion research and communications specialist who currently works for the reproductive health organization Advocates for Youth, told ThinkProgress that these kind of polling questions are “very superficial,” particularly because researchers have known for quite some time that the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels don’t accurately reflect the American public’s complicated attitudes about abortion. She described traditional polls as a “blunt object” rather than a sophisticated measurement of people’s real beliefs.
“Because we have not thought through how to measure this, we’ve really done a disservice to our understanding of public opinion. We’ve tried to make a really complex issue into a yes or no answer,” Stewart said. “We’re calling people up in the middle of their day and right off the bat we’re asking them if they think abortion should be legal or illegal — and you have to wonder how accurate that really is on an issue that we know people hold complex and conflicting feelings about.”
Asking about legality is the wrong angle to take, according to Undem and Stewart, because it leaves no room for the personal dimension of attitudes toward abortion access. Many people are morally opposed to abortion, yet don’t necessarily think it should be out of reach for other people who feel differently, and they may struggle with not knowing how to represent both of those views equally. (To address that, Advocates for Youth has experimented with asking polling questions like, “Regardless of your own views on abortion, do you think women should be able to access abortion?”)
Plus, questions about constitutional law may not be particularly relevant to most people. “Abortion has been legal for 40 years. So part of me wonders why we’re still polling on legality,” Undem told ThinkProgress. “I think a more accurate picture comes from when you’re asking about what the public wants for someone who’s decided to have an abortion.”
That’s one of the areas that Undem experimented with in the poll she recently conducted for Vox. She asked respondents a series of questions about what they believed a woman’s abortion experience should look like. If a woman wanted to have an abortion, would they want her experience to be “comfortable,” “supportive,” “without pressure,” “non-judgmental,” “affordable,” “informed by medically-accurate information,” or “without added burdens”?
A large majority of respondents — at least 69 percent — said “yes” for each of those descriptors, suggesting there’s consensus about how Americans want women to be treated after they choose to seek an abortion. This aspect of Undem’s polling is “really groundbreaking,” according to Stewart.
Those groundbreaking questions were inspired by some of the findings that Undem has collected over the past year in a series of focus groups on abortion attitudes. In a handful of states, she has been working with the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH) to conduct qualitative research on this issue that pushes past the traditional framework typically used in national polls.
“Honestly, the best sense of public opinion on this issue I get is from focus groups, not from surveys, because it’s so complicated,” Undem said.
You won’t necessarily get meaningful results from asking Americans whether they’re satisfied with the country’s current abortion policies, or whether there should be more or fewer abortion restrictions in place, because people have no sense of the current landscape. There’s a big information gap. Undem says that when she asks people in focus groups to tell her what laws currently govern abortion, most people don’t know or are simply guessing. Most people say that abortion is easily accessible and covered by most insurance plans (it’s not), and they have no idea what it actually costs (a lot). If you want to measure people’s opinions about reality, Undem pointed out, you have to first inform them about what that reality is.
“Most people, understandably, aren’t tracking how many laws are being passed to try to eliminate access to abortion care. That’s not their job,” NIRH’s president, Andrea Miller, told ThinkProgress. So her organization has been experimenting with ways to impart that information to people in focus groups in a way that they’ll trust — that doesn’t feel like “spin” or like “people are trying to sell them something.”
One simple tool has been working well so far: A graph that gives people a visual representation of how many different abortion laws are in place in their state, and when those laws were passed.
Undem said that, as a researcher, it’s been “astounding” to see the strong reactions this graph provokes. “When you get in a focus group with people and you show them the entirely of the restrictions and exactly what’s going on, there is total outrage — it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in fifteen years of doing public opinion research,” she said.
Even some of the focus group participants who initially said they agreed with a few of the individual laws, like mandatory counseling requirements, changed their opinion when they saw all of the different abortion restrictions mapped out together — saying that all of these different laws couldn’t possibly be focused on helping women’s health. Miller recounted that some participants have actually asked, bewildered, “Where is the woman in all of this?”
You can get a sense of this phenomenon from the open-ended responses that the participants in Vox’s poll provided. After they looked at a similar graph, they were asked to write one word that described how they felt about these restrictions. Even among some of the people who indicated that abortion should be “illegal in most cases” — the people who would be categorized as leaning pro-life in traditional polls — gave responses like “bullshit,” “ridiculous,” “tragic,” “ashamed of our country,” “offensive,” “crazy,” and “disturbing.”
Miller and Undem both agreed that finding ways to close the information gap about the current landscape of abortion restrictions could ultimately move people to action. For instance, most of the people who participated in the focus group asked to take the graph home so they could show their friends and family members, saying they had to spread the word about what’s really going on.
“When people see the current state of affairs, in terms of what kinds of laws are in place and what women need to do if they want to get an abortion, they’re shocked and appalled and they want it to change,” Miller said. “The attacks that have been happening are ultimately an overreach so far beyond where the American public is. Awareness of that overreach, I think, will result in a tremendous power surging forward.”
“One thing that really surprised me is that what comes of out of this outrage is a real desire to act. We often do research to change behavior, and I’ve never seen anything like this that has so much potential,” Undem said. “Unprompted, these people will say, ‘How do I have a voice on this? Who do I call?’ It’s really powerful.”
Miller and Undem both caution that they’ve only collected data from a few states so far. But in partnership with Undem’s firm, NIRH is planning on continuing this research in additional places, and using those results to work toward designing more detailed polls along the lines of Vox’s. The project will eventually be released publicly after the organization collects more qualitative and quantitative data.
They’re hoping that more accurate polling on the issue of abortion will disabuse Americans of the notion that the issue is static, and move us toward a more nuanced conversation that better reflects how people are actually grappling with questions related to abortion in their everyday lives. That could help subtly shift the media narrative away from the conventional wisdom that abortion is hopelessly polarizing — making it easier for people who have complicated opinions about the subject to voice where they stand, without feeling pressured to fit their views into a neat “pro-choice” or “pro-life” box.
“It’s a cycle,” Stewart pointed out. “We create this sense that the public is much more split on opinions of abortion, an issue that already holds a great deal of stigma and shame. Then, the people who are supportive, and think that individuals should make up their own minds on these issues, are much less likely to stand up and say that.”
Miller said that she sees “seeds of hope” in the effort to move past the traditionally politicized way of thinking about and polling about abortion. “I think it’s creating a really important to space for people to be able to place their own experiences in context, and see themselves in the debate,” she said. “That’s what’s often missing.”