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U.S. Public opinion polls: 1992 to 1998

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TIME-CNN Poll of 1992

The most meaningful public opinion poll that we have been able to find was conducted by Time/CNN during 1992-JUN 3 to 4 among a randomly selected group of American adults. They asked "Do you favor or oppose abortion in the following circumstances?" This was followed by seven scenarios. Answers were collected for all persons asked (including Christians, Atheists, persons of no religion and followers of religions other than Christianity), and for persons who identified themselves as either Catholic or Protestant.

In the chart below, the first figure is the percentage response of all persons; the second is for Roman Catholics only; the third was for Protestants only:

  Question In Favor Opposed Unsure
1 "When the mother's life is at stake:" 84,81,85 11,13,10 5,6,5
2 "When the mother's health is in danger:" 82,81,81 12,13,13 6,6,6
3 "In cases of rape or incest:" 79,79,77 16,15,18 5,6,5
4 "If the fetus will be born seriously deformed:" 70,68,68 22,24,24 8,8,8
5 "For any reason during the first trimester" 47,45,45 44,47,48 9,8,7
6 "For any reason while the fetus cannot survive outside the womb: " 67,67,65 23,26,25 10,7,10
7 "At no time during the pregnancy:" 25,25,25 65,65,66 10,10,9

This survey shows how difficult it is to interpret public polls. The vote of a person who knows little about the topic is counted just as much as an expert. Assuming that the results for question 5 and 6 were reported correctly it is obvious that many people believe that the fetus can survive outside of the womb during the first trimester. In fact, it is only in the third trimester that the fetus becomes viable.

bullet Question 5 shows that opinion is fairly evenly split on whether to allow a woman to have an abortion for any reason during the first trimester. Pro-lifers could be encouraged by these data, and claim that public opinion is evenly balanced on first trimester abortion on request.
bullet Question 6 shows that the public supports, by an almost 3 to 1 ratio, a woman's access to abortion for any reason before the fetus is viable. i.e. during the first trimester, as well as the second trimester. So, Pro-choicers could be encouraged by these data, and claim that the public favored first and second trimester abortion on request by a very large margin.

And they would both be right.

The question: "Do you favor or oppose abortion in the following circumstances?" is a curious query for a public opinion poll because of its ambiguity:

bullet Some clients might interpret the question personally, as if it said: "Would you have an abortion yourself, in the following circumstances?"
bullet Other clients might interpret the question in terms of public access, as if it said: "Do you favor or oppose women being able to choose to have an abortion in the following circumstances?"

Many women would reject having an abortion themselves, even as they insist on the right of other women to have a choice.

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Louis Harris Poll of 1996-AUG

This is an important poll because the same question has been asked of a representative sample of adults from 1973 to the present time. They typically ask the opinion of about 1,000 adults. Thus, the data from this poll can be used to track trends in public opinion as it shifts through time.

bullet The Louis Harris poll showed that the percentage of American adults who take the most extreme pro-choice position and would permit abortion "under all circumstances" has dropped from 30% in 1993 to 25% in 1996.
bullet The percentage of adults who support Roe v. Wade was found to be 52% in 1996, which was an increase from 41% in 1991 and about the same as in 1973.

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"THIRD AGE" Poll of 1998-JAN

The Third Age refers to "the new, extended period of active adulthood which starts in the early 50s. It is characterized by a sense of accomplishment and fresh beginnings for individuals who champion a new view of what it means to be older." They conduct about two voluntary polls a month from among Internet users. 1

In late 1998-JAN to early FEB, they conducted a poll on the topic of abortion. Their somewhat loaded statement was: "I agree with the pro-life movement. Abortion is wrong and deserves criminal penalties."

The surfer is asked whether they strongly agree, agree, are undecided, disagree or strongly disagree with that statement. As one might anticipate, their 2,684 responses were highly polarized on the topic.

Strongly Agree 40%
Agree 7%
Undecided 2%
Disagree 8%
Strongly Disagree 41%

This poll does have some weaknesses:

bullet Because of the nature of the sponsoring Web site itself, many of the persons responding to the poll might be older than average; this might swing the results towards "agree" and "strongly agree."
bullet Even a minor effort by a single pro-choice or pro-life group could organize their members to swamp the poll with duplicate entries.
bullet The poll was open to all, not restricted to Internet users in the US or in North America.

But it does suggest that North Americans are highly polarized on the topic of abortion access, and that any resolution to the conflict is not going to be a simple or speedy task.

This essay continues below.

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New York Times/ CBS Poll of 1998

This poll was conducted on the 25th anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court "Roe v. Wade" decision. This ruling established abortion on request during the first trimester, and allowed states to place increasing restrictions on access to abortion in the second and third trimester.

Results of the poll were:

  First trimester Second Trimester Third Trimester
Favor legal abortion during:  61% 15% 7%


Opinion Men Women
Keep abortion generally available, as now 31% 32%
Increase restrictions on abortion 45% 44%
Prohibit abortions 23% 21%

This is obviously a topic where people have strong opinions. The percentage of undecided respondents was 1% for men and 3% for women - an unusually low number for public opinion polls.

The poll does not appear to be well structured. Respondents were not given the option of preferring the liberalization of abortion laws. Also, the "prohibit abortions" did not differentiate between those who wish to stop all abortions, and those who wish to criminalize all abortions except cases of rape, incest or where the woman's life is in danger from a continued pregnancy. A better series of options might be:

  1. make abortions more freely available
  2. keep abortions generally available, as now
  3. increase restrictions on abortion
  4. prohibit abortions except in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the woman's life
  5. prohibit all abortions.

But even a series of 5 questions would not really generate an accurate picture of public attitude towards abortion. A further improvement would be to differentiate between early and late abortions. Perhaps the above series of 5 questions could be asked for abortions in each of the trimester.

It is probable that some of the "increase restrictions" responses were a reaction to the recent debate over "Partial Birth Abortions." There appears to be a great deal of public opposition to this procedure. This may have motivated some clients to switch from the status quo to advocating restrictions.

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Reference used:

  1. Third Age's main home page is at:

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

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Copyright 1996 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-NOV-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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