Sinking Polls Suggest Little Support for Restricting Abortion Coverage in Health Reform

Wendy Norris

A curious trend surfaced in early November when public support began to tank for health care reform as different schemes were floated by Congress and the House voted to further restrict federal funding for abortion. Which raises an interesting question: Can we blame those waning views on the Stupak-Pitts amendment?

A curious trend surfaced in early November when public support began to tank for health care reform as different schemes were floated by Congress and the House voted to further restrict federal funding for abortion. Which raises an interesting question: Can we blame those waning views on the Stupak-Pitts amendment?

To get a sense of what’s happening, Pollster.com compiled 12 months of survey data from media-backed, independent and partisan polling firms to aggregate health care reform surveys to gauge overall general support or opposition.

As is typical with any charged issue, partisan voters in the political minority will reflexively oppose a bill championed by the majority. Especially when it’s described as "Obamacare" or the Democrats’ plan. It’s just the way of Washington.

However, it’s critical to recognize, as Pollster notes, the inherent problems in trying to poll a complicated issue like health care rather than the typical horserace surveys of "Do you like candidate X?" that lead to much more straightforward statistical conclusions.

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That’s certainly part of the problem in trying to untangle where the American public really is on this issue. As politicians float trial balloons on various aspects of the bills and opposition arguments decrying a "government takeover of health care" take hold in the media, it’s not surprising that a general lack of support is becoming more firmly rooted in the poll results. All the while Capitol insiders of health care reform have done a lousy job of succinctly describing their goals in a sound bite obsessed media culture.

So then how does one explain the overwhelming 30-point margin of support for the "public option?"  A Dec. 9 CBS-New York Times poll reveals a 59-29 breakdown for the federal health exchange of public, nonprofit and private health insurance plans consumers can choose from to help break up the current local insurance monopolies that hinder competitive pricing and contort risk pools by denying coverage based on age, gender and pre-existing conditions.

A Dec. 18 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation that has tracked reform support since Feb. finds 54 percent of Americans believe it is more than important than ever to tackle the problem. Whether voters support or oppose reform measures, significant numbers are actively engaged in the debate. Half of respondents have tried to sway family and friends, contributed to an interest group or contacted the media or elected representative.

In a guest commentary at Pollster.com, the folks behind the Ipsos-McClatchy Poll account for the discrepancies this way:

In contrast, issues like healthcare reform are quite fuzzy as no bill typically exists at the beginning of the process. This makes the construction of a single question impossible if not simply disingenuous.

Put another way, we have no "true value" to measure against — no concrete bill exists (or at least did not exist until recently). You can’t measure what doesn’t exist!

The problem is most apparent when looking at generic questions on healthcare. Such questions are broadly worded and lack any concrete anchor. People, consequently, can (and do) read into them what they want, making their meaning variable.

This is precisely what’s happening with the public option which is easily describable and has "true value." It wins enormous popular support.

Ipsos-McClatchy, and others, finally took the rising negativity toward health care reform a step further. They asked respondents, why? And they got an earful from unexpected critics of the plan — self-described liberals who groused that it didn’t go far enough.

As Pollster.com illustrates:

With the stunning lack of mention about abortion by opponents does that mean we can fling the Stupak-Pitts straw man into the pyre of blame for declining poll numbers on health care reform? Like the public opinion polling, it’s fuzzy.

The ensuing media circus fueled by the contentious abortion funding debate created an unnecessary diversion from much needed scrutiny of H.R. 3200 which undoubtedly added to the public’s confusion about the landmark bill. Obsessing over the whip count on Stupak-Pitts (and the recently defeated Nelson-Hatch amendment in the Senate) falls neatly into the binary debate that a complicated issue like government intervention cannot.

So much so that conservatives have very effectively set up pro-choice lawmakers to kill health care reform should either the onerous Senate Manager’s Amendment, which segregates federal funding but ultimately remands abortion coverage decisions to the states, or the Stupak-Pitts language remain in the reconciliation bill sent to the president. No muss, no fuss and no fingerprints.

But the facts remain. Few Congressional conservatives will vote for health care reform or the wildly popular public option anyway — with or without an expansion of the current Hyde amendment that prohibits federal funding of abortion.

Further, as CBS News polling director Sarah Dutton points out: opposition to federal funding of abortions has hovered just above 50 percent for more than 30 years.

The needle gauging abortion funding hasn’t moved in three decades. And as the Pew Research Center notes, those who oppose health care reform over the possibility of abortion funding constitute a measly three percent of the American electorate. Among respondents that identify as Catholics and evangelical or mainstream Protestants, just eight percent say abortion funding is the primary reason they will not support the bill.

White evangelical Protestants (74%) and white Catholics (72%) were more likely than white mainline Protestant opponents of reform to say that abortion funding was a major reason for their views. But even within these religious groups, larger shares list the expansion of government as a major factor. Nearly all opponents of the legislation cited multiple concerns as major reasons for their position, and not one cited abortion as the only major reason they opposed the bills before Congress. In other words, every single person who said abortion funding was a major reason that they opposed the bill also cited one or more other major reasons. 

Instead of legitimately debating the federal government’s role in private health care, politicos, pundits and lobbyists with clerical collars bathed in the shallow tributaries of stagnant anti-abortion statistics to divert attention from the hundreds of millions in health care industry political contributions and financial motives at the heart of their opposition. And all the while scoring cheap political points with buzzed up constituencies.

So, go on pro-choice advocates. Be loud and be proud. But know that if health care reform fails the abortion effigy will be set ablaze once again by craven ideologues with a penchant for fuzzy math and our own congressional coalition who fall for it.

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