Getting a (Slightly) Better Handle on Public Opinion About Abortion

It’s never been a secret that public opinion research on the subject of abortion has been of dubious value, and is sometimes actively misleading. That’s particularly true of polls that ask Americans to self-identify as “pro-choice” or “pro-life” without, of course, defining those terms. And other polls that seek to polarize people into two camps favoring or opposing legal abortion have all sorts of problems.

So I was thrilled to hear that a new, less superficial poll on the subject had been commissioned by Vox, with the findings being written up by the excellent health care reporter Sarah Kliff.

Color me somewhat better informed but still disappointed.

What the new poll does in abundance is to show something most of us already knew: the big broad “pro-life” and “pro-choice” categories disguise a huge number of nuances, ambiguities and even contradictions. But many of these still don’t track the actual decisions policymakers are confronting, and often involve judgments based on subjective factors that no law can really weigh, short of setting up polygraph machines at abortion clinics. Some measurements remain over-broad: the Vox poll repeatedly asks people if they think about should be legal in cases of rape, incest, or threats to the health of the woman involved–pretty much the standard set by the Supreme Court. Anti-choice pols scream that health is a huge, abused loophole whereby liberal docs make up “mental health” excuses for women wanting abortions. It would be nice someday to have a poll that really probed this issue.

What the Vox poll does indicate is that a lot of people who don’t favor “liberalized” abortion laws are amazingly sympathetic to women who have nonetheless decided to terminate a pregnancy, and do not favor the kind of harassment of both women and providers that have become the be-all and end-all for anti-choice politicians. That’s important intelligence to have. And there’s also some potential in the finding that most people do not seem to be aware how many women (roughly one in three) will at some point in their reproductive years have an abortion. Everything else about the poll suggests that the more people find themselves identifying with women seeking abortions, the less likely they are to oppose its legality. And clearly, most people know woman close to them who are in effect “in the closet” when it comes to this remarkably common experience.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.