Who has the upper hand? Pro-lifers do. The Post/ABC poll lays this bare. Here’s the full text of its question: “The U.S. Supreme Court has said abortion is legal without restriction in about the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. Some states have passed laws reducing this to 20 weeks. If it has to be one or the other, would you rather have abortions legal without restriction up to 20 weeks, or up to 24 weeks?”
It’s reasonable to speculate that the phrase “without restriction” alienated some respondents and made them more likely to choose the earlier time limit. It’s also possible that the passive language—“reduce” rather than “ban”—soothed people who might otherwise worry about a new abortion law. But it’s hard to believe that these factors could account for the enormous gap that resulted: 56 percent of respondents chose 20 weeks, while only 27 percent chose 24 weeks.
In fact, those numbers understate the pro-life tilt. Eight percent of respondents volunteered that abortion should never be legal. Two percent said they wanted an earlier time limit than 20 weeks. So the percentage of respondents who would have chosen 20 weeks if they’d answered the question as it was posed isn’t 56 percent. It’s more like 66 percent.
You can argue that this number is inflated by the poll’s stipulation that “it has to be one or the other.” Maybe people who were unsure or indifferent shrugged and picked 20 weeks. But then you’d have to account for the same factor on the other side of the ledger. If the percentage of respondents who preferred the 24-week limit was only 27 percent, how many of those people actually felt strongly about it? How meager is the constituency for 24 weeks?
That could turn out to be the decisive factor. What’s striking about the Post/ABC question is that it strips out all the background noise and frames the issue as a simple numerical choice. Which limit do you prefer: 24 or 20? As a general rule, for any question being debated, the comparative, stripped-down version is the one most likely to prevail. Pushing larger themes onto a legislative vote, or isolating one option while obscuring the other, takes work.
Over the years, the theme that has served pro-choicers most effectively is government interference. Americans who dislike a social practice are often susceptible to the argument that despite their feelings, the government should stay out of it. But that didn’t work in the WSJ/NBC poll. Respondents were told that while some people believe “20 weeks after fertilization is the point at which a fetus is capable of experiencing pain,” other people believe “medical decisions should be between a woman and her doctor, and government should not be involved.” The result—44 percent in favor of the ban, 37 percent against it—suggests that the power of pro-choice ideology in this debate may be limited.
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Saturday, July 27, 2013
Abortion and Public Opinion
At Slate, William Saletan reports on public opinion and the debate over late-term abortions: