The NYT Gets It Mostly Right on Abortion Polling, For Once

by Michael J. New

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.”

To his credit, Leonhardt admits that the abortion issue does not benefit Democrats as much as some other high-profile issues do. He correctly notes that, despite common perception, men and women have fairly similar attitudes toward abortion — it can’t do much to explain the “gender gap.” Furthermore, Leonhardt acknowledges that the pro-life position has made some long-term gains in the court of public opinion — in the mid 1990s, Gallup surveys put pro-life sentiment under 40 percent, while in recent years the firm has found such sentiment at or over 50 percent.

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.

— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan–Dearborn, a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.