Politics & Policy

Oversimplifying Abortion Polls

Meghan McCain speaks during a press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., July 26, 2013. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
Public opinion toward abortion is complicated, but it’s entirely reasonable for Meghan McCain to say that half of American women are pro-life.

After Meghan McCain suggested that half of American women agree with her pro-life stance on abortion, the Twitter account of “Catholics for Choice” responded that she was “incorrect”: “In the Roe era, the vast majority of women have consistently supported pro-choice positions to some degree. (And by the way, so [have] a clear majority of Catholics).”

The group supports this assertion by reference to a Gallup series that finds, most recently, that 32 percent of American women believe abortion should be legal in “any” circumstances and another 46 percent think it should be legal under “certain” circumstances, with 20 percent saying it should be illegal in all circumstances. This sort of result is very commonly read to mean that 78 percent of women are pro-choice — which is the way this organization reads it.

What it ignores is that Gallup often subdivides that middle option, so that people can choose whether they think abortion should be available “only in a few” or in “most” circumstances. And year after year, “only in a few” greatly outnumbers “most.” In 2018, the most recent year for which I have the data broken down by sex, 31 percent of women said abortion should be legal in any circumstance, 14 percent said in “most” circumstances, 32 percent said “only in a few,” and 20 percent said “illegal in all” circumstances.

Read that data the way CFC does, and you would say that 77 percent of women were pro-choice that year and 20 percent pro-life: pretty close to the 2020 numbers. (Public attitudes on abortion rarely show much year-to-year change.) But it’s also true that 52 percent of women thought abortion should be legal in either few or no circumstances, while 45 percent said it should be legal in most or all circumstances. Cut the data that way, and you’ve got a small pro-life majority among women. (Men’s opinions were, as usual, pretty similar to those of women, with 56 percent choosing the more pro-life options and 42 percent the more pro-choice ones; slightly fewer men, 17 percent, fell into the most pro-life camp.)

Gallup is of course not the only source of data on public opinion on abortion. A recent Marist poll for the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic organization) gave respondents six options on abortion policy — they could say, for example, that they believed abortion should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest, and threats to the mother’s life. In that poll, a combined 52 percent of women picked either that option or two more abortion-restrictive ones.

“Catholics for Choice” would undoubtedly consider a politician who said that abortion should be illegal except in cases of rape, incest, or threats to a mother’s life to be an opponent, not an ally. This was, after all, the view taken by all three of the last Republican presidents. But a woman who held this very same view might well, if Gallup asked her, say that abortion should be allowed in “certain” circumstances. She would then be part of the group’s spurious pro-choice majority.

Opinions toward abortion are complicated, but McCain’s description of it seems to me much more reasonable than her critics’. Her larger point, that the press tends to underrepresent pro-life women, is also right — and a misleading picture of public opinion is one reason why it does that.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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