A Poll of the Polls

Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director of Priests for Life
December 17, 2001

Professor Raymond J. Adamek (Department of Sociology, Kent State University) has done the pro-life movement a great service in his study "Abortion Polls 1965-1998: Designed to Measure or to Mold Public Opinion?"

His analysis of major opinion polls on the abortion question during that time frame reveals that, given the way the questions are asked, what is being measured is not the public's opinion about the current abortion laws and practice. What is being measured is their opinion about imaginary abortion laws and practice. This is simply because so many of the questions misrepresent the facts.

Professor Adamek explains, "On 85 occasions from 1973 to 1998, 8 major pollsters described Roe v. Wade as permitting abortion during 'the first three months of pregnancy.'…[T]his description is incomplete and misleading, since it gives the uninformed respondent the impression that the Court did not legalize abortion beyond the first trimester, and focuses the attention of the informed respondent on only part of the decision."

A reading of Roe and subsequent abortion decisions, a study of the legislation and Court battles on partial-birth abortion, or a journey through the "A" section of the Yellow Pages of a major city is enough to dispel any doubts that abortion is legal throughout pregnancy. So why can't a poll that wants to measure what people think about that policy ask people what they think about that policy, instead of what they think about some different policy?

The conclusion: You simply can't believe a poll that tells you that most Americans agree with "Roe vs. Wade." They still don't know what the decision said, and it is most likely that the pollster hasn't helped them find out.

Another imbalance in abortion poll questions is the way they speak about "rights." Professor Adamek explains that he analyzed "all questions from 1965 through 1998 that explicitly mentioned the woman or the unborn and the word 'right(s)'….An illustrative 'woman's right' question is: Do you favor or oppose the Supreme Court ruling that women have the right to have an abortion during the first three months of their pregnancy? (Yankelovich Clancy Shulman 4/5/89). We found 66 items asking about the woman's right to (choose) abortion but none asking exclusively about the unborn's right to life! By asking questions about only one side of the rights issue, polls yield an incomplete and skewed picture of public opinion."

A third problem area is the fact that 65% of questions referred to the abortion-making decision as one in which the doctor was involved. Yet in reality, fewer than 25% of women, if that many, bring the doctor into the decision making process at all. Now since the majority of Americans approve medical necessity as a justification for abortion, mentioning the doctor in the question increases the "pro-choice" responses. Questions which specify the actual reasons for which abortions occur would yield a better measure of what people think about abortion practice in America.

Good practical advice, therefore: Don't just look at a poll's results; look at its questions.

Priests for Life
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