CONTINUING CONFUSION ABOUT ROE v. WADE
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act triggered several polls about the public’s opinion on Roe v. Wade. Of course, such polls have been around since 1973. If you carefully look at them, you conclude that while people have become more knowledgeable about—and opposed to—abortion itself, they are still quite ignorant about Roe v. Wade.
The arrival of prenatal ultrasound and the sustained educational campaigns of pro-lifers have refocused the public’s attention on the humanity of the unborn child and the brutal facts behind “choice.” Today, a pollster can ask a question about partial-birth abortions without having to describe the horrific details of the cruel procedure. People know what partial-birth abortions are and they oppose them: 72% think they should be illegal, according to the latest Gallup poll (May 10-13, 2007).
The public’s increasing unease with abortion is also evident in Gallup’s “pro-life/pro-choice” question. In a Gallup poll in September 1995—around the beginning of NRLC’s campaign to ban partial-birth abortions—33% of the public identified themselves as “pro-life,” while many more (56%) labeled themselves as “pro-choice.” In May 2007, Gallup’s numbers were 45% “pro-life” and 49% “pro-choice.” The labels “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are, however, quite imprecise.
The same May
2007 poll provides a more useful breakdown: 18% think that abortion
should be “illegal in all circumstances,” 40% want abortion to be
“legal in a few circumstances,” 15% are for “legal under most
circumstances,” and 26% agree with “legal in all circumstances” (the
de facto doctrine of Roe v. Wade). A more accurate division would
be: 58% “mostly pro-life” (18% + 40%) vs. 41% “mostly pro-abortion”
(15% + 26%).
These breakdowns of public opinion cannot be easily interpreted with respect to attitudes about Roe v. Wade. A Gallup poll done for the 30th anniversary of Roe showed that 53% of Americans considered Roe v. Wade a “good thing,” 30% considered it a “bad thing,” and a fairly large fraction, 17%, were “uncertain.” Of those who considered Roe to be a “good thing,” only 58% took the position one would expect, namely that abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances. The rest however, 41%, thought that abortion should be illegal or legal in only a few cases—which is completely at odds with the abortion-on-demand nature of Roe. It is fair to surmise that a large fraction of the public does not know how radical Roe v. Wade is.
The uncertainty about Roe is evident from other polls, too. Asked “Do you happen to know the name of the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized the right to abortion in this country,” 43% said “Roe v. Wade” (or Roe or Wade alone) and 55%, the majority, could not name the decision (Princeton Research Associates, 1,000 women, January 2003).
Given this widespread lack of knowledge about Roe v. Wade itself, polls about the decision have a great deal of uncertainty. The problem is compounded by the fact that most polls on Roe are inaccurately worded. Unless respondents have in-dependent knowledge about the radical sweep of Roe, they are at the mercy of the pollster who typically downplays the extremism of Roe.
For over 30 years, the Harris poll has used this mind-numbing and incorrect question: “In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that states laws which made it illegal for a woman to have an abortion up to three months of pregnancy were unconstitutional, and that the decision on whether a woman should have an abortion up to three months of pregnancy should be left to the woman and her doctor to decide. In general, do you favor or oppose this part of the U.S. Supreme Court decision making abortions up to three months of pregnancy legal?” (Emphasis added.)
By repeating the phrase “up to three months of pregnancy” three times, the respondent is given the powerful suggestion that Roe legalized abortion only in the first three months. And this is then topped off with the phrase “the woman and her doctor”—suggesting further that abortions are primarily done because of dangers to the mother’s physical health. Yet even with this completely misleading question, support for Roe has eroded: In 1973, 52% favored Roe, 42% opposed it. At the peak, in 1991, 65% favored it, and 33% opposed it. In the latest poll, 2006, only 49% favored Roe, while nearly an equal number, 47%, opposed it.
A recent Gallup poll (May 2007) asked respondents whether they favored overturning Roe or not (without further characterizing the decision). About a third, 35%, favored overturning it; 53% did not. A similar result came from the Ayres, McHenry poll (May 2007): 34% are for overturning Roe, 55% for keeping it. But, after being further informed that Roe makes legal what most voters want to be illegal, 43% are for overturning Roe and allowing the states to make abortion policy; and the sentiment for keeping Roe drops to 48%.
Clearly, the public is ready to be convinced that Roe v. Wade and its companion, Doe v. Bolton, not only do violence to the Constitution—they are truly radical and incompatible with America’s sense of decency. A poll question from April 2006 (the polling company, inc.) points us in the right direction:
“In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that abortions should be allowed for any reason, even as a method of birth control. Do you agree with that decision that abortions should be allowed for any reason or do you think it should be changed?” Agreeing with the decision: 32%; “it should be changed”: 58%—a complete reversal of the Gallup numbers.