Frame Game

The Politics of Pain

In the debate over banning abortions at 20 weeks, pro-lifers have the upper hand.

Woman, 5 months pregnant.
Why does public opinion weigh toward restricting abortion after 20 weeks rather than 24?

Photo by BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

In the past week, two polls—one from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, the other from ABC News and the Washington Post—have asked Americans about the latest trend in pro-life legislation: outlawing abortions 20 weeks after fertilization, on the grounds that fetuses at this stage of development can sense pain. These polls, combined with surveys by National Journal (in collaboration with United Technologies), the Texas Tribune (in collaboration with the University of Texas) and the National Right to Life Committee (conducted by the Polling Company), offer a preliminary map of the terrain on which the fight—which moves next to the U.S. Senate—will be waged. What do Americans think of a ban at 20 weeks? Here are some early signs.

1. Does talking about pain make a difference? You’d think it would. After all, this is the ostensible basis for shifting the line to 20 weeks from the onset of fetal viability, which occurs at around 24 weeks. But the evidence is inconsistent. The strongest sign that pain moves people comes from the NRLC poll, which prefaced its question by stating, “There is scientific evidence that unborn children are capable of feeling pain at least by 20 weeks after conception.” That preface, followed by the question, “Would you support or oppose a law that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks unless the life of the mother was in danger,” yielded overwhelming support: 64 to 30 percent. That’s a significantly higher support level than any other national poll has found.

It’s not clear, however, to what degree this is due to the pain claim (which is sharply contested) as opposed to the words “unborn children.” I assume the pain statement is the bigger factor. But in that case, why did the Post/ABC poll, which didn’t mention pain, produce a much higher pro-life margin (29 percentage points) than the National Journal and WSJ/NBC polls (4 and 7 percentage points, respectively), which did? And how do you explain the Tribune survey of Texans? In that poll, interviewers asked half the sample about “prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks” but asked the other half about “prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks based on the argument that a fetus can feel pain at that point.” Overall, the change made no difference. Either way, 62 percent of respondents favored the ban.

The Tribune also posted its crosstabs online. If you study the tables, it turns out that pain did make a difference, but only among men. Their level of support increased by about 5 percentage points when the pain rationale was mentioned. Is that because men like to have reasons? Or is it because men can’t stand pain? I’ll leave that question to you. But to the extent that pain makes a difference, it might be rationalization as much as persuasion. If you don’t like late abortions, the claim that fetal pain begins at 20 weeks justifies what you already wanted to do: tighten the time limit.

2. Does a rape exception make a difference? The data offer no evidence that it does. The National Journal poll, which explicitly exempted rape and incest, yielded a 4-point margin of support for a 20-week ban—less than the 7-point margin in the WSJ/NBC poll (which exempted only the life of the mother) and the 29-point margin in the Post/ABC poll (which said nothing about exceptions). It’s possible that other differences among these questions are concealing an effect. My guess, however, is that respondents didn’t focus on the exceptions. When you’re being asked whether to move the line to 20 weeks, that’s a novel and complicated question. It consumes your attention. But in that case, there’s a catch: As the idea of a 20-week ban becomes more familiar, the details will come into focus. Rape exceptions are likely to play a larger role.

3. Is there a gender gap? Yes, but it’s complicated. In the national media polls, women are slightly more likely than men to support a 20-week ban. The gap between the sexes is 4 points in the National Journal poll, 6 points in the WSJ/NBC poll, and 7 points in the Post/ABC poll. When you average these surveys, the ban has plurality support among men but majority support among women.

But that pattern doesn’t hold as the numbers rise. In the Texas poll, where support for a 20-week ban stands at 62 percent, men are 4 percentage points more likely than women to favor the ban. In the NRLC poll, where overall support stands at 64 percent, men are 2 percent more likely—statistically, a wash. Part of this might be male susceptibility to the mention of pain: In the Tribune crosstabs, the greater tendency of men to favor the ban, compared with women, materializes only when pain is cited. But some of it might be a glass ceiling. The polls in which overall support is below 60 percent show a greater pro-life advantage among women. The polls in which overall support is above 60 percent show a greater pro-life advantage among men. One possible explanation is a large group of women, perhaps 40 percent, among whom it’s relatively difficult for pro-lifers to make inroads. By comparison, men might be more flexible.

4. Who has the upper hand? Pro-lifers do. The Post/ABC poll lays this bare. Here’s the full text of its question: “The U.S. Supreme Court has said abortion is legal without restriction in about the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. Some states have passed laws reducing this to 20 weeks. If it has to be one or the other, would you rather have abortions legal without restriction up to 20 weeks, or up to 24 weeks?”

It’s reasonable to speculate that the phrase “without restriction” alienated some respondents and made them more likely to choose the earlier time limit. It’s also possible that the passive language—“reduce” rather than “ban”—soothed people who might otherwise worry about a new abortion law. But it’s hard to believe that these factors could account for the enormous gap that resulted: 56 percent of respondents chose 20 weeks, while only 27 percent chose 24 weeks.

In fact, those numbers understate the pro-life tilt. Eight percent of respondents volunteered that abortion should never be legal. Two percent said they wanted an earlier time limit than 20 weeks. So the percentage of respondents who would have chosen 20 weeks if they’d answered the question as it was posed isn’t 56 percent. It’s more like 66 percent.

You can argue that this number is inflated by the poll’s stipulation that “it has to be one or the other.” Maybe people who were unsure or indifferent shrugged and picked 20 weeks. But then you’d have to account for the same factor on the other side of the ledger. If the percentage of respondents who preferred the 24-week limit was only 27 percent, how many of those people actually felt strongly about it? How meager is the constituency for 24 weeks?

That could turn out to be the decisive factor. What’s striking about the Post/ABC question is that it strips out all the background noise and frames the issue as a simple numerical choice. Which limit do you prefer: 24 or 20? As a general rule, for any question being debated, the comparative, stripped-down version is the one most likely to prevail. Pushing larger themes onto a legislative vote, or isolating one option while obscuring the other, takes work.

Over the years, the theme that has served pro-choicers most effectively is government interference. Americans who dislike a social practice are often susceptible to the argument that despite their feelings, the government should stay out of it. But that didn’t work in the WSJ/NBC poll. Respondents were told that while some people believe “20 weeks after fertilization is the point at which a fetus is capable of experiencing pain,” other people believe “medical decisions should be between a woman and her doctor, and government should not be involved.” The result—44 percent in favor of the ban, 37 percent against it—suggests that the power of pro-choice ideology in this debate may be limited.

5. What should future polls ask? I’d suggest three things. First, the surveys published to date have asked respondents to choose either a) between 20 and 24 weeks or b) between assertions of fetal pain and the idea of abortion rights or government noninterference generally. But if we’re going to debate 20 versus 24 weeks, why not ask people to choose between the rationale for pain and the rationale for drawing the line at viability? Isn’t that the real question?

Second, none of the published polls mentions that assertions of fetal pain capability at 20 weeks are strongly disputed by most scientists. They could be wrong, but that’s the prevailing view. I’d like to see how that affects the numbers.

Third, it isn’t clear to what extent people are moved by the risk of fetal pain, as opposed to fetal pain capability. Do they believe that a fetus capable of feeling pain is too fully human to kill? Or do they simply think it’s wrong to cause pain? There’s a simple way to force the issue: Offer them two choices at 20 weeks, an abortion ban or mandatory fetal anesthesia. What do you think they’ll say?