Thursday, January 16, 2003

Pejman is impressed by this story about an alleged shift in American public opinion against abortion. I'm not. Abortion polls are notoriously sensitive to changes in wording, and "are you in favor of restoring legal protection for unborn children?" is hardly a careful or subtle way to phrase the question. The sponsoring organization didn't publish the precise results or the list of questions asked-- never a good sign. The reputability of the pollster isn't at issue. The best pollster in the world, if commissioned to conduct a survey using loaded questions, will yield loaded results. The most professional sampling and phoning and weighting won't fix the bias in the questions.

This USA Today poll shows that the shift against abortion has been a matter of a few points. As I recall, the traditional rule of thumb was that the population could be divided into thirds-- a third would answer that abortion should always be legal, a third never or close to never, and a third would be in the middle (oppose public funding, or oppose third trimester abortions, etc, but not want early abortions to be banned or regulated based on the reason for the abortion). The hardcore pro-life answer is up to 38% (plus or minus 3%). Only about 30% (same margin of error) oppose a ban on partial-birth abortion (NB: stipulated to be "during the last six months of a pregnancy"-- a thirteenth-week abortion is hardly the image circulated by proponents of the partial-birth ban), which I think we can take to be the hardcore pro-choice constituency. That's a shift, but not an overwhelming one. The remaining 32% or so remain in the middle. I think it's worth noting that the ban-partial-birth-abortion figure is virtually identical to the "are you in favor of restoring legal protection for unborn children?" figure from the other survey. This suggests to me that when people heard that question, they were thinking about partial-birth abortion (or even, e.g., about the questions involving criminal assault or murder against both mother and fetus), not about all abortion as such.

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