Abortion Polling in America

Polling, just like statistics, can be misleading. You can manipulate statistics to make them confirm your predetermined opinion – and the same is true of polling.

As we approach the end of June – and the end of the Supreme Court session – everyone is anticipating the decision of the court on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. This case challenges the Mississippi law that outlaws abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The unprecedented leak of an early opinion of Justice Samuel Alito that would overthrow Roe v. Wade has put this issue squarely in the media spotlight.

The Supreme Court has several options. They could overthrow the law, preserving the right to an abortion after 15 weeks in the state of Mississippi. They could uphold the law, making it illegal to have an abortion after 15 weeks. Lastly, they could overturn Roe v. Wade, which would return the issue of abortion to the fifty states where they would make their own determination if abortion might be legal and when. Some states will outlaw abortion all together, while others will permit abortion with varying limits. Democratic laws in Europe have generally settled on legal abortion up to 15 or 18 weeks. Polling suggests that’s what many Americans favor.

Pollsters are busy trying to determine the mindset of the American people in advance of the Supreme Court’s decision. Democrats are eager to use the issue as a way to counter the horrendous track records of this administration going into the November mid-term elections. They are hoping to galvanize their base on the issue of abortion, although they strongly oppose overturning Roe.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board weighed in on the issue of polling recently. They say the conventional wisdom on abortion polling is that the Supreme Court is walking into a gale-force political wind if it overturns Roe v. Wade. Gallup reported recently that 55% of Americans identify as pro-choice, up six points since 2021 and near a record high. The Journal’s own poll last week says 68% of people hope the Supreme Court doesn’t completely overturn Roe. 

What does that mean, really? What do people mean when they identify as pro-choice?

In the Gallup survey, 67% of Americans say abortion should be “generally legal” in the first three months of pregnancy. But it falls precipitously to 36% in the second trimester and 20% in the final trimester. Remember, the Dobbs case is about limiting abortion to the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. Therefore, you would assume that only 36% of Americans would oppose that law – or 64% would agree with it. According to Gallup, “A majority of Americans (55%) are generally against abortion in the second three months.” This is roughly the same percentage that call themselves pro-choice.

In other words, there are many pro-choice Americans who nonetheless oppose abortion in the second and third trimesters. One study of 2019 abortions in the U.S. says that 79% were performed at nine weeks or less of pregnancy, and 93% at 13 weeks or less. Someone could be saying “yes” that abortion should be legal in “most” circumstances, yet still support the restrictions of the Mississippi law.

WSJ says, “The real contradiction in the polling is Roe, which has become a totem that doesn’t reflect the underlying policy views. Fifty-five percent of Americans tell Gallup that abortion should be generally illegal in the second trimester. Yet a majority say the Supreme Court should keep Roe. That circle can’t be squared, and it probably reflects that many Americans don’t realize what Roe really allows.”

Roe v. Wade was intended in enshrine a fundamental right to abortion until fetal viability, about 23 or 24 weeks. In reality, that’s nearly the third trimester. In practice, however, abortion is legal right up to the day before birth, and for any reason if a woman can find a doctor willing to perform it. This was never the intention of the law in 1973.

There is a disconnect between what people say they believe and why they believe it. If most Americans (55%) say they do not support abortion after the first trimester, you must assume they believe that because they think after the first trimester the fetus in the womb is a viable human being. But the truth is that fetus was a viable human being since conception.

When I was in medical school in the late 1970s, Roe v. Wade had just been decided (1973). There was no doubt in the teaching of the medical school professors that life begins at conception – and the only necessary ingredients for the next nine months were a healthy womb and time. That embryo, with all the DNA of an adult, was just as human as the fetus that would develop in time into the child that would someday be born.

Therefore, the distinctions being made by many Americans between first, second, and third trimesters are not based on medicine and science – they are based on ignorance or political ideology. The only honest intellectual opinion is you are either opposed to abortion at any time – because it is the termination of a human life – or you agree with abortion at any time – because you do not respect human life. You can’t have it both ways.

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