A few days ago I asked why two sets of fairly similar poll questions consistently yielded divergent results. Polls that ask respondents whether abortion should be legal under “any,” “most,” or “only in a few” circumstances, or “illegal in all circumstances” yielded resulted in more pro-life answers than polls that ask if “abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases.” The biggest difference seemed to me to be that a pretty similar option was described in one poll as keeping abortion legal only in a few circumstances, and in the other as being illegal in most cases. Could that really be enough to drive a rather large shift in public opinion?
I received many interesting emails. The leading explanations from readers:
1) “Legal” is more “positive” than “illegal,” and the latter brings in the question of punishment–and, in particular, the specter of throwing abortion-seeking women in jail, which pushes ambivalent voters in a pro-choice direction. (It would be interesting to know how a specific legal regime with light penalties for performing an elective abortion [something I’ve defended in the past] would test.)
2) People think that abortion should be permissible in only a few circumstances, but think those circumstances occur often. So, for example, they may believe that abortion should be legal in cases of rape, incest, threats to the mother’s life, and severe fetal defect–only a few circumstances–but think that these account for most cases of abortion (which is very far from being true). This example would also correspond to the polls that ask people whether abortion should be generally legal, legal in cases of rape, incest, and threats to the mother’s life, or illegal altogether–polls that usually find a small majority for the two pro-life options.
My guess is that explanation number one is the predominant factor. Thanks for all the emails.