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New abortion poll oversimplifies complex issue, UCSF professor says

Published: Tuesday, July 30 2013 9:10 p.m. MDT

About a hundred pro-life supporters gather for a rally at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., Thursday, April 12, 2012. The crowd attending the annual “Pro-Life Legislative Day” were surprised when Republican Rep. Ed Henry of Hartselle talked publicly for the first time about going with his pregnant girlfriend to have an abortion. Henry told the crowd, “I murdered my first child.”

Dave Martin, Associated Press

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.

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