Last Wednesday on the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, David Leonhardt conducted an analysis of public-opinion data on the issue of abortion. Unlike many pundits who simply analyze one poll and spin the results to support their position, Leonhardt analyzes a range of recent surveys in an attempt to gauge public opinion accurately. Not surprisingly, he paints a mixed picture. In part that’s because, as political professionals and academics are well aware, survey results on life issues can be very sensitive to the specific way that questions are worded.
Leonhardt correctly states that many polls indicate that the Roe v. Wade decision enjoys broad public support, but he also acknowledges that many people still remain uncomfortable with unrestricted abortion access. According to a 2012 Pew research poll, fewer than 25 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in all cases. Furthermore a 2013 New York Times/CBS poll finds that fewer than 45 percent of Americans think that abortion should be generally available, while a majority of respondents felt that abortion either should not be permitted or should be available under stricter limits. Leonhardt concludes that “by any objective measure the country is conflicted.”
My only complaint with Leonhardt’s analysis is that he should have extended it to examine particular geographic regions, because they’re of real political relevance. A substantial body of survey data finds that both the pro-life position and pro-life laws enjoy even more public support in the South and the Midwest. Since the 1990s, Republicans have won majority control of more legislative chambers in southern states, and every southern state is now enforcing a pro-life parental-involvement law and every southern state, except one, is enforcing an informed-consent law. Furthermore, this year, southern states such as Texas and North Carolina have taken a leading role in efforts to enact protective pro-life legislation.
Typically the New York Times’ coverage of sanctity-of-life issues is far more biased and partisan. For instance, the Times gives plenty of coverage to studies that find that abortion has a minimal impact on the health of women, but, in a near Orwellian fashion, they totally ignore peer-reviewed research which indicates that abortion leads to significant physical and mental-health problems. In 2006, they published a superficial analysis of six state parental-involvement laws which claimed that such laws were ineffective — while totally ignoring 17 peer-reviewed studies which show parental involvement laws reduce in-state abortion rates among minors. So especially given the outlet, Leonhardt deserves credit for his detailed and nuanced analysis of this issue’s public-opinion data.