Buzzfeed published an interesting article recently by Ema O’Connor, entitled “No One Really Knows What Americans Think About Abortion.” O’Connor provides a detailed analysis of the recent polling on life issues. She notes that many Americans have nuanced views on abortion that are not reflected by the survey questions typically asked in polls and that responses are often affected by subtle changes in question wording. She also correctly points out that many polls are commissioned by advocacy groups that have a vested interest in obtaining a particular result.
O’Connor also seems to agree with the pro-life argument that polls on public opinion of Roe v. Wade tend to be unhelpful. In particular, she notes a PerryUndem poll finding that 30 percent of respondents weren’t sure what Roe was about or thought the case had to do with a topic other than abortion. Most Americans fail to understand the policy implications of the ruling in Roe, and others don’t know what would actually happen if it were overturned. As a result, O’Connor rightly concludes that many surveys are not particularly useful in helping us achieve a better understanding of public opinion on abortion.
However, O’Connor’s article neglects polling data that do reveal what many Americans believe about some aspects of abortion policy. For instance, a substantial majority favors limiting late-term abortions. There is strong public support for a range of incremental pro-life laws such as parental-involvement laws, limits on taxpayer funding for abortion, and informed-consent laws. These findings remain consistent regardless of which survey-research firm conducted the polling or the specific wording of survey questions.
Interestingly, much of the blame for the confusion about abortion attitudes falls not on advocacy groups but on media outlets and research firms, both of which commissioned many of the misleading polls about Roe that were the focus of attention after former Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy’s resignation.
Some polling firms rarely conduct surveys of public opinion about the legality of late-term abortions or about incremental pro-life laws. Since 1995, Gallup has asked respondents to identify as either “pro-life” or “pro-choice” 32 times, but during the same time period, Gallup only asked about the legality of third-trimester abortions six times, parental-involvement laws five times, and waiting periods four times.
The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court likely will increase the salience of abortion as a public-policy issue. Good public-opinion data can often inform the debate on a range of policy issues, but instead of asking about abortion policy broadly, research firms have tended to focus mostly on public opinion on Roe. In July and August, there were at least five national polls conducted about Roe, and no polls of note about other major abortion-related questions. In the future, pollsters should ask a wide range of questions on abortion policy instead of questions designed to give the misleading impression that most Americans support expansive abortion rights.