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New abortion poll oversimplifies complex issue, UCSF professor says

A new poll conducted for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds regional divides on abortion policy views, with the Northeast and West Coast heavily supporting legal abortion while other regions are more open to restrictions.

Most of New Englanders — 75 percent — felt abortion should be legal in most or all circumstances, with 65 percent on the West Coast saying the same. Only 47 percent in the Midwest agreed, and just 40 percent in the Southern heartland states. Nothing in this regional divide would surprise any who had followed recent national politics or who were aware of the relative religiosity of the heartland compared to the coasts.

The Pew poll contrasted sharply with the results of a poll released last week by the Wall Street Journal and NBC. In the Pew poll, 54 percent of respondents nationwide agreed that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, and 40 percent disagreed. That large gap disappeared in the WSJ/NBC poll, which found 49 percent supported legality in most or all cases and 48 percent opposed it.

And aside from the disconnect between two polls, the real story may be buried in poll questions that squeeze complex choices into an either/or result, said Tracy Weitz, a sociologist and an associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.

If Weitz is right, the better question may be not be whether NBC/WSJ or Pew got the black-and-white poll question wrong. It may be why we are focused on that question at all.

Most abortions

Weitz supports legalized abortion, but she also feels that the public is not well-served by a dialogue that reduces the issue to false black-and-white choices.

“Most polling around abortion is now used as an advocacy tool rather than as an understanding tool,” Weitz said.

“It all depends on how people interpret the question,” Weitz said. When people think they are responding to abortion involving incest, rape or life of the mother, “it will look like people are much more supportive of abortion for many more reasons, because they have checked yes on this long list.”

The abortion issues most widely discussed, Weitz said, touch only a small fraction of actual abortions. The current push to ban abortions after 20 weeks would only affect about 1 percent of abortions, she noted, and the other extreme exceptions such as rape and incest are even less common.

But most people think they are responding to such cases when they state their views, Weitz said. In fact, she said, most abortions occur in the first trimester and are for economic reasons — a justification most Americans reject. “If you look at it numerically,” Weitz said, “most Americans think abortion should be illegal in most numerical cases.”

Confused labels

People are confused not just about the numbers when it comes to abortion. They also are confused about labels. Clustering the issue under a single heading tends to cloud political dialogue and obscure the real public pulse. For instance, in May Gallup found that 51 percent of Americans think the public is “pro-choice,” while just 35 percent believe most Americans are pro-life. The very same poll found that 48 percent actually called themselves pro-life, compared to 45 percent who considered themselves pro-choice.

In general, the NBC/WSJ poll broke the issue apart more subtly than the Pew report. A plurality of respondents, 44 percent, supported a ban on abortions 20 weeks postfertilization, compared with 37 percent who would oppose such a ban.

And gender divides were surprising. “More women than men supported the state bans, 46 percent to 40 percent,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “Even college-educated women, a group that strongly supports abortion rights, tipped toward favoring" restrictions that begin at 20 weeks. "Among that group, 62 percent said abortion should be legal, but only 40 percent opposed the 20-week bans, compared with 44 percent who backed a ban at 20 weeks.”

Youth and intensity

The relatively high numbers of “no opinion” in the WSJ/NBC poll are not entirely surprising, as the poll also found that abortion is a low policy priority for most Americans. Just 26 percent said it should be a high priority, while 72 percent saw it as a low or medium-level concern.

The lack of intensity on the issue has abortion rights advocates concerned and pro-life advocates hopeful. Both youth and intensity are on the antiabortion side, said Texas Right to Life legislative analyst Emily Horne.

Horne points to Nancy Keenan, head of NARAL Pro-Choice America until she stepped down last year, who cited the youth and intensity of the pro-life movement in explaining why she was looking for younger blood to replace her. Keenan had surveyed the 400,000 marchers in the annual March for Life, she told the Washington Post. "I just thought, my gosh, they are so young," Keenan said. "There are so many of them, and they are so young."

A 2010 Gallup poll found that youth aged 18-29 were slightly more likely than any other age group to oppose abortion in any circumstance, and slightly less likely than any group except seniors to favor abortion in all cases.

Nuanced dialogue

Horne and Weitz are both hopeful their positions might benefit from more direct dialogue on the real issues replacing oversimplified “drive-by” poll questions.

“The more education you get on some of the more extreme truths of abortion," said Texas Right to Life's Horne, "the more people really don’t like it. I think our mission has to be education, and education leads to more effective legislation.”

For her part, while Weitz recognizes that a nuanced conversation about abortion will sometimes not favor her preferred pro-choice position, she insists that being intellectually honest is the only way forward.

“I think we have empirical evidence that the dichotomous approach is not serving the pro-choice movement well,” Weitz said. Her view is that by defining the issue in black-and-white terms, the pro-choice side has left the policy debate entirely to their opponents.

“I think the pro-choice movement is having trouble breaking through to have a conversation with an American public that has a more nuanced position on abortion,” Weitz said. “They are more conflicted on it. They have a lot of questions. They want some regulation of abortion, but they don’t know what it is. The only people who are speaking to them are the folks who are putting forward regulations.”