Do Most Americans Think Most Abortions Should Be Illegal?

Pro-life activists participate in the March for Life in 2002.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Today is Roe v. Wade day. Every year on this anniversary, pro-lifers convene in Washington, D.C., to hold their “March for Life” and commemorate the day on which, 41 years ago, the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to abortion. Every year, they have millions more abortions to lament. And almost every year, the weather for the march is bitterly cold.

To hearten themselves, pro-lifers like to tout polls suggesting that the public is on their side. Yesterday, in its annual report on this issue, The State of Abortion in the United States, the National Right to Life Committee issued a two-page summary of “Public Opinion & Abortion.” The summary makes it look as though most Americans think most abortions should be illegal. But, on closer inspection, they don’t.

The NRLC report lays out the results of a survey taken nearly a year ago by its own pollster. Having paid for the poll, the NRLC got to choose the questions. Here’s the question it chose:

Which of the following statements most closely describes your own position on the issue of abortion? Abortion should be …
a) Prohibited in all circumstances
b) Legal only to save the life of the mother
c) Legal only in cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother
d) Legal for any reason, but not after the first three months of pregnancy
e) Legal for any reason, but not after the first six months of pregnancy
f) Legal for any reason at any time during a woman’s pregnancy

And here are the poll’s results, as presented in the report:

The report claims that these numbers show most Americans think abortion should be illegal in all but a few cases:

[O]nly 12% said their position—legal for any reason at any time during a woman’s pregnancy—matched that of the policy advocated by the abortion lobby. And only another 10% would allow abortion through the first six months of pregnancy. Thus, at most, 22% supported the effect of Roe v. Wade. Another 20% would allow abortion but restrict it to the first trimester. A majority—53%—indicated that they would either restrict abortion in all circumstances, or allow it only when the mother’s life was in danger, or in cases of rape, incest—reasons which account for very few abortions.

This poll question, which the NRLC has been using for 25 years, is a textbook setup job. Here’s how it works. First, it overloads the pro-life side of the spectrum. Of the six possible abortion policies you’re offered, three are quite strict: completely illegal, illegal except to save the woman’s life, and illegal except in cases of rape or incest. So if you’re inclined to pick whatever option is in the middle, as many respondents are, there’s about a 50 percent chance you’re going to take option No. 3, the exceptions for rape and incest. Sure enough, half the sample picks option No. 3 or option No. 4, and option No. 3 gets most of these respondents. This pushes the overall pro-life number above 50 percent.

On the other side of the ledger, the current law in most states—legal abortion until about the sixth month of pregnancy—doesn’t get offered until option No. 5. So even if you pick the other middle option, No. 4 (as 20 percent of the sample did), you get counted against the 22 percent of respondents who, according to the NRLC, “supported the effect of Roe v. Wade.” By stacking the options, the poll essentially pushes the middle to the right.

When you stack the options differently, you get a different answer. Here’s what happened a year ago, when Gallup asked this question for USA Today:

In this poll, the policy that NRLC presented as option No. 4—legal abortion through the first trimester—was option No. 1. Keeping abortion generally legal in the first trimester, but not the second, came across as the middle position. And that’s the position most respondents chose. In the NRLC poll, the combined percentage of respondents who said abortion should be generally legal at least in the first trimester was 42. In the Gallup/USA Today poll, it was 61.

To bolster its own survey, the NRLC cites a different Gallup poll:

The same Gallup poll asked respondents: “Do you think abortion should be 1) illegal in all circumstances; 2) legal in only a few circumstances; 3) legal under most circumstances; or 4) legal under any circumstances. This question comes closer to revealing American attitudes toward Roe and Doe’s regime of abortion revealing that only 26% agree with that position (legal under any circumstances), while 58% feel abortion should not be legal at all or legal in only a few circumstances.

Why does the NRLC show you this poll? Because it’s one of the few surveys taken in the last year that favors the NRLC’s position. Here are all the public polls I’ve been able to find that asked this question, with four possible answers, since the beginning of 2013:

The wording isn’t identical for every poll. To read the exact questions, you can click the links here for YouGov, AP/GfK, Quinnipiac, Pew, ABC News/Washington Post, Gallup, CNN/ORC, PRRI/Brookings, and NBC News/Wall Street Journal. But they’re largely consistent. In 11 of the 14 samples, most Americans say that in most cases, abortion should be legal. In the last seven months, the record is 7–0.

I’m not trying to pick on the pro-lifers. Pro-choicers are just as clever at manipulating their poll questions to get favorable results. So are other movements, organizations, industries, and political campaigns. As a citizen, your job is to recognize and take account of the manipulation. The people who pay for these polls get to choose what questions you’re asked. They don’t get to dictate how you read the results.