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Public opinion polls on abortion

Why they are deceptive & unreliable

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Inaccuracies of public opinion polls on abortion:

Polls can give inaccurate results if:

bullet An inadequate number of persons were sampled.
bullet The individuals polled did not include a representative sample of the population. Results are unreliable if they involve persons whose ages, religious beliefs, gender, race, nationality, etc. are atypical.
bullet Loaded questions are asked.
bullet The answers are not completely thought out.
bullet Confusing terminology is used. 1

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Loaded questions:

For example, one 1980 poll asked similar questions, worded in two different ways: 2

bullet "Do you think there should be an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting abortions, or shouldn't there be such an amendment?" Those in favor of an amendment: 29%; opposed 67%. Here, the pollsters used the term "abortion" which they probably selected as the  most emotionally neutral term that they could find.
bullet "Do you believe there should be an amendment to the Constitution protecting the life of the unborn child, or shouldn't there be such an amendment?" In favor of an amendment: 50%; opposed 34%. Here, the implication is that an abortion kills a child.

Meanwhile, a poll conducted one year later asked a heavily weighted question: 3

bullet "The decision on whether or not to perform an abortion rests with the consenting patient, and should be performed by a licensed physician in conformance with good medical practice." 90% were in favor of this statement. But the question is deceptive. The pollsters combined two questions in to one: should a woman be able to decide to have an abortion, and should it be done by a skilled practitioner.

Pro-choice groups could focus on the answer to the first question, and claim that less than 30% of the population is pro-life. They could use the results of the third question and claim 10%. Pro-life groups could center on the second question and claim that half the population was pro-life. And both groups would be correct - at least they could support their assertion with statistics.

Another example of biased questions is seen in a Wirthlin Worldwide National Quorum poll, conducted on behalf of the pro-life group Faith2Action in 2002-DEC 4 (N=1001; margin of error = 3.2%)

bullet One question was worded: "In light of recent medical advances such as in-utero surgery and 3-D ultrasound technology, which reveals the unborn child's body and facial features in detail, are you in favor of restoring legal protection for unborn children?" 68% of those sampled were strongly or somewhat in favor. A person who disagreed with this question would be in the position of not protecting children.
bullet Another was worded: "Would you favor judicial nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court who uphold laws that restore protection for unborn children?" 66% of those sampled were strongly or somewhat in favor. The implication is that some nominees might refuse to uphold existing laws.

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"Gut-reaction" questions:

One deficiency with most polls is that they require snap judgments from the subjects, without examining all of the implications of their decision. For example:

bullet The Gallup Poll reports on a yearly basis the percentage of American adults who oppose abortion access for all reasons. Results have ranged from 22% in 1975 to 12% in 1995. The value in the year 2000 was 19%
bullet Yet, a Time-CNN poll in 1992 showed that only 11% of American adults would withhold an abortion needed to save the life of the woman, and only 12% would prohibit an abortion if the woman's health is in danger.

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Language used:

As a minimum, we need to know were the exact questions asked, of whom was it asked, how many individuals were sampled, and under what conditions were the questions asked. Does the question talk about:

bullet terminating a pregnancy,...or murdering babies?
bullet women's rights,...or killing children?
bullet access to an abortion,...or compulsory parenthood for every pregnant woman?
bullet whether the individual personally approves or disapproves of abortion for themselves,... or what laws should be in place to prohibit a woman who wants an abortion from getting one.

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Inadequate study:

Even with a careful set of questions, and a representative sampling of the population, there remains one overwhelming factor that reduces the effectiveness of polls. Some individuals or their partners have never had a crisis pregnancy, or have never had a close friend with an unwanted pregnancy. They are liable to answer questions on the basis of their religious or political views. But if they have to face a crisis pregnancy and are forced to think through all the options, they often change their opinion from pro-life to pro-choice, or vice versa. Unfortunately, polls tend to weight the opinion of those who have never thoroughly examined the questions equally with those who have. Polls are exactly what they claim to be: an expression of the opinion of the public -- whether informed or not.

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A better poll:

The following questionnaire is provided to political candidates by Project Vote Smart in order to determine their positions on a range of abortion questions. With few modifications, it could form the basis of an improved public opinion poll:
Indicate which principles you support (if any) concerning abortion:

a) Abortions should always be illegal.

b) Abortions should be illegal when the fetus is viable, with or without life support.

c) Abortions should always be legally available.

d) Abortions should be legal only within the first trimester of pregnancy.

e) Abortions should be legal when the pregnancy resulted from incest or rape.

f) Abortions should be legal when the life of the woman is endangered.

g) Abortions should be limited by waiting periods and notification requirements as decided by each state government.

h) Prohibit the dilation and extraction procedure, also known as "partial birth" abortion.

i) Prohibit public funding of abortions and public funding of organizations that advocate or perform abortions.

j) Support "buffer-zones" by requiring demonstrators to stay at least five feet from abortion clinic doorways and driveways.

k) Provide funding for family planning programs as a means to decrease the number of abortions. 5

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The ideal poll:

In the author's opinion, the best polling technique would be for the agency to pose a number of situations to their subjects -- describing a scenario that a pregnant woman might find herself in, and asking if the woman should be allowed to have an abortion if she wishes one.

For example, a poll could be taken in which 50% of the subjects were asked the following questions. The other 50% would be asked the same questions, with "baby" substituted for "fetus:"

bullet A woman became pregnant due to a contraceptive failure. She is a university student and does not want to interrupt her education.
bullet A 16 year old teenager in high school conceived four weeks ago, was abandoned by her boyfriend, and believes that her parents will throw her out of the house if they find out.
bullet A 16 year old teenager in high school is pregnant and has the full support of her family who offer to help her raise the child. But she feels that a baby would seriously interfere with her educational plans.
bullet A woman became pregnant as the result of a rape.
bullet A woman became pregnant as a result of incest.
bullet A rare situation has come up in which continuing the pregnancy would result in the death of the fetus and the woman.
bullet An amniocentesis procedure shows that the fetus suffers from the Down's Syndrome genetic defect.
bullet A rare situation has come up in which the woman would suffer very serious and perhaps permanent health problems if she cannot have an abortion.

And, most important, the identical survey would be conducted on a yearly basis so that long-term trends could be determined.

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  1. "Abortion: Questions & Answers," Ohio Right to Life, at:
  2. Market Opinion Research, Bailey and Deardourff, (1981). Conducted for the National Abortion Rights Action League. Quoted in Reference 1
  3. New York Times/CBS News Poll, The New York Times, 1980-AUG-18, Page 1. Quoted in Reference 1.
  4. "Poll results," at:
  5. "2000 Congressional National Political Awareness Test," Project Vote Smart, at:

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Site navigation: Home page > "Hot" topics > Abortion > Facts > Polls > here

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Copyright 1996 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-MAR-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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