Differing Polls Complicate The Picture Of Public Opinion On Abortion

Last week's 11-hour filibuster to keep abortion clinics open in Texas comes amid a murky understanding of where Americans stand on the issue.
By @FrederickReese |
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    In the Texas Senate on June 25, a Democratic legislator launched a desperate attempt to block the Republican supermajority from passing a bill that was advertised as a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy but that would have in all reality created a new set of requirements that would close down all but five of the state’s abortion providers. State Sen. Wendy Davis’ (D-Fort Worth) 11-hour filibuster did not last until the end of the special session at midnight due to Republican senators’ repeated objections, but the resulting parliamentary tussle and disruptions from the gallery resulted in enough delay that SB 5 could not pass.

    “This is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said. “An unruly mob using Occupy Wall Street tactics has tried all day to derail legislation that has been intended to protect the lives and the safety of women and babies.”

    “They didn’t feel like the process was fair, and it just erupted,” Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston) told the Texas Tribune of Republicans’ attempt to silence Davis and push ahead with the vote. “They were determined to finish Wendy’s filibuster.”

    “This was an excellent example of national organizations and grassroots organizations working together and not really stepping on each other’s toes and really each doing what they do the best,” said Tiffany Bishop of GetEqual Texas, a gay rights grassroots organization whose members helped disrupt the special session. “It was really amazing to me to see the people from NARAL and Planned Parenthood screaming along with us.”

    The next day, Republican Gov. Rick Perry announced he would call the Senate back for another special session beginning July 1.

    “We will not allow the breakdown of decorum and decency to prevent us from doing what the people of this state hired us to do,” Perry said in a statement.

    Texans “value life and want to protect women and the unborn,” he said.


    Dueling polls

    Recently, determining exactly what Texans want has been tricky. A June 20-23 United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll asked 1,005 adults whether they support legislation that bans virtually all abortions nationwide after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of rape and incest that are reported to the authorities. Forty-eight percent of all respondents supported such a ban, while 44 percent were opposed. The breakdown of the demographics suggest a partisan split in the responses, with 59 percent of Republicans supporting such legislation and 59 percent of Democrats opposing.

    However, according to a June 17-19 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research poll of 601 registered Texan voters, respondents were evenly split — with 43 percent agreeing and 43 percent disagreeing — on the notion that women’s access to health care is being threatened in Texas. Sixty-three percent felt that “Texas laws already place enough restrictions on abortion and we don’t need any new laws,” while 74 percent felt that “personal, private medical decisions whether to have an abortion should be made by a woman, her family, and her doctor, not by politicians.”

    Seventy-one percent felt that, “Instead of spending time passing more laws restricting abortion, the state legislature in Texas should be focusing on creating jobs and growing the economy.” Another 57 percent felt said they “don’t trust Governor Perry and the state legislature to make decisions about women’s healthcare.”

    Fifty-one percent of all respondents opposed a proposal that “would put in place new restrictions and regulations on abortion providers that would likely result in the closure of all but five abortion clinics in the state of Texas, all of which are located along the I-35 corridor, and would ban most abortions starting at 20 weeks of pregnancy.”

    This is complicated even more by a survey of 1,200 registered Texas voters that was conducted between May 31 and June 9 by the University of Texas and Texas Tribune. When asked if they support prohibiting “abortions after 20 weeks based on the argument that a fetus can feel pain at that point,” 62 percent indicated that they support this, compared to 27 percent who opposed it. However, among the very same voters, when asked their opinion on the availability of abortion, 30 percent said that the “law should permit abortion only in case of rape, incest or when the woman’s life is in danger” and 36 percent said that “a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice.”


    On interpreting poll responses

    What is clear from all of this is that no one can say for sure what the people’s feelings are on the subject of abortion. Polling on a question such as abortion is — by its design — futile, because of its high emotional weight and complexity. Questions such as “do you believe in God?” or “Do you support the death penalty?” or “Do you feel that the world is evil?” and so forth reflect as much the respondent’s state of being at the time the question was asked as the respondent’s personal philosophy. Considerations not captured in a poll — such as age, socioeconomic standing and religious fidelity — typically influence such polls in a way a quick sound bite rarely reveals.

    For example, a closer look at the demographics of the University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey shows that 75 percent of all respondents feel that religion is important in their lives, 70 percent feel that the Bible is the word of God, 60 percent had less than a four-year college education and 73 percent do not live in a city. While this does not suggest a correlation, it does add context to the responses given and would suggest that the polling results would be different if the polling sample was more diverse. In the same way, the fact that the majority of the respondents in the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll were White, highly educated, highly religious and married indicates that the poll was not so much a reflection of the voting population at large, but just a subset of the electorate.

    “Abortion is a topic that leaves most people feeling uncomfortable and confused,” wrote Karen Tumulty on the issue for the Los Angeles Times in 1989. “Theirs is a conditional, complex, middle position,” says Thomas W. Smith of the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Center, which has been tracking public sentiment on abortion since the early 1960s. “Abortion is one of those issues in which, quite frankly, you shouldn’t trust the pollsters,” says Harrison Hickman, who should know, because he has done a series of polls for the National Abortion Rights Action League.

    “Surveys on abortion often yield contradictory results. Ask a question one way, and a solid majority of Americans will say that abortion should remain legal. Change the wording a bit, and the same group will favor banning it. Nonetheless, from these surveys comes what both sides realize is the winning strategy in the nation’s war over abortion. “Just as the polls come out according to the way the question is asked, so will the outcome of elections depend on who is more successful in framing what the question is all about,” Hickman says.

    Currently, 19 states have laws on their books in defiance of Roe v. Wade. Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska and Oklahoma ban abortions beginning 20 weeks after the estimated date of fertilization. North Carolina bans abortions beginning 20 weeks after the mother’s last menstruation. Kansas stops abortions 22 weeks after the last menstruation. Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Dakota wait 24 weeks after the last menstruation. Iowa, Texas and Virginia ban third-trimester abortions based on last menstruation. South Carolina bans third-trimester abortions based on date of fertilization. An additional 22 states have abortion laws that are in compliance with Roe v. Wade. Many of the unconstitutional laws have been struck down in court, but still remain on the legislative rolls. Others permit abortion in cases where the safety of the mother is at risk.

    Texas’ push to pass its abortion ban is not a response to a call from the Texas people, as Gov. Perry suggested; it is the proliferation of the national Republican platform. This is fine within itself, if the people are allowed to consider it on its own merit. The debate about abortion has and will continue to exist, as long as passionate people from both sides have the breath and energy to continue to fight. However, hiding behind polls to justify an argument just confuses the issue. As stated by the Washington Post polling director Jon Cohen, “it’s not really about not believing polls, rather that polls can’t give simple answers when no simple answers to be had.”

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