The Corner

Politics & Policy

New Poll on Abortion Asks the Wrong Question

Signs at the Supreme Court during the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., January 18, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Marist has released a new poll purporting to show low levels of support for legislation such as the Texas heartbeat bill. This poll surveyed more than 1,200 adults in late September and was conducted in conjunction with NPR and PBS Newshour.

The survey found that only 32 percent of Americans would support legislation protecting preborn children after “cardiac activity is detected about 6 to 8 weeks in pregnancy.” In its coverage of the  poll, PBS indicated that the Texas law, and policies like it, are “deeply unpopular,” adding that “a clear majority of Americans, including most Republicans, opposes key provisions of the controversial new Texas abortion law.”

But a closer look at the poll’s questions and results suggests that the poll has some significant problems, indicated by the fact that its findings deviate significantly from nearly every other contemporary poll on the topic of abortion. For instance, every recent poll on the subject suggests that there is a consistent and significant difference of opinion on abortion between Republicans and Democrats.

Gallup’s poll on abortion earlier this year, for instance, found that 74 percent of Republicans identify as “pro-life,” as opposed to only 26 percent of Democrats, a 48-point gap. This new Marist poll, meanwhile, found that Republicans were only three points more likely than Democrats to support a bill similar to the Texas heartbeat bill.

Most contemporary surveys on abortion find that white Evangelicals are far more likely to support pro-life legislation than is the population as a whole. But Marist’s poll found that white Evangelicals responded with below average levels of support for legislation modeled after the Texas heartbeat bill.

One possible reasons for the Marist poll finding unexpectedly low levels of support among Republicans and white Evangelicals is that the key survey question was very poorly worded. The poll asked respondents if they “support or oppose a law that allows abortions, but only up to the time cardiac activity is detected about 6 to 8 weeks into pregnancy?”

Almost certainly, many pro-lifers indicated that they would oppose such a bill, because they support protecting all unborn children and would oppose any law that explicitly legalized abortion in the early stages of pregnancy.

In addition, this wording of the question implicitly misrepresents the Texas heartbeat bill. Abortion is already legal in Texas regardless of the heartbeat law, which seeks to protect preborn children after a fetal heartbeat is detected. The law does not itself legalize abortion prior to the detection of a fetal heartbeat.

In the past, Marist has conducted a number of reputable surveys on a range of public-policy issues, including abortion. In fact, every year the Knights of Columbus partners with Marist to conduct a poll on life issues, the results of which are released around the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The results of these surveys often indicate that many incremental pro-life laws enjoy broad support.

When this poll on legislation similar to the Texas heartbeat bill found abnormally low levels of support among Republicans and white Evangelicals, Marist should have been skeptical of its results and would have been wise to conduct another poll with better-worded questions. Instead, by releasing these results, Marist has provided misleading information about how certain demographic groups – and the country as a whole — feels about the Texas heartbeat bill.

Michael J. New is a research associate at the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America and is an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New