Commentary Media

Polling About Abortion Is Rarely About Abortion

Amanda Marcotte

CNN's latest poll has the same problem as so many before it: It's not measuring attitudes about abortion so much as attitudes about female autonomy. By not being more exacting, the poll may do more to confuse than illuminate.

At this point, I’ve given up all hope that anyone will ever construct a poll on reproductive rights and access that illuminates the issue instead of distorting it. The latest offender is CNN, which recently polled American voters on their attitudes about Planned Parenthood and abortion. One part of the survey in particular demonstrates how misleading this data can be: Respondents were asked to consider whether or not the procedure should be legal in certain circumstances. Considering the multitude of reasons women in the real world give for having abortions, you would think that this would be a complex question, but no. CNN only asked respondents about abortion in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest, or “for any reason, as long as the pregnancy has not reached the stage where a fetus would be able to live outside the mother’s womb.”

The problem is that “any” is a vague and extremely broad term. “Any” encompasses the single mother of three who can barely afford the kids she has. It encompasses a teen girl who wants to stay childless and go to college instead of being pressured into marriage at 17 to her high school boyfriend. If people were asked about these specific, real-life scenarios—many of which have happened to them or those they love—they’d probably feel empathy. But the wording of the question, likely unintentionally, encourages respondents to conjure up the worst possible situations, most of which stem from anti-choice propaganda: myths of women who abort in order to fit into a new dress or who have three abortions a year because they can’t be bothered with condoms or who obtain the procedure because they’re too busy organizing their feminist coven to settle down with that nice guy who just wants to propose.

To be clear, the women of such anti-choice mythology, should they exist (they don’t), also deserve abortion rights. But the discourse around abortion is already framed in the language of deservingness and whether your reasons are good enough. Questions like CNN’s just further encourage people to entertain worst-case scenarios rather than the big picture. And, in turn, that hyperbole is reflected in the responses. If it had asked questions like, “If your daughter wants to have an abortion rather than stay with an abusive boyfriend?” CNN would have gotten a lot more support than it did in this case, where a slim majority—51 percent—disapproved of abortion being legal for “any” reason.

That’s the tricky part of polling data like this. By simply asking about “any” reason, the questioners are asking you to trust the judgment of the hypothetical women seeking abortion. CNN is probably not measuring people’s feelings about abortion itself so much as measuring their ability to trust women to make these decisions on their own. And it appears that slightly more than half of people do not trust women and women alone with this decision.

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Yes, I’m saying that a lot of people are sexist. It’s not really a surprise, is it? We’re only now, as a species, starting to extract ourselves from thousands of years of a male-dominated society that justified itself by saying that women cannot be trusted with any decision more important than which color of frock to wear. Women have only been able to vote in the United States for 95 years. You don’t overcome that lack of trust in women’s decision-making abilities overnight.

We also know this because when the issue on the table actually becomes abortion itself and not these debates about women’s ability to make decisions, people become a whole lot more pro-choice. In red states where anti-choice sentiment runs the highest, like South Dakota and Mississippi, attempts to ban abortion outright were defeated at the polls. And in the rare instance where someone does try to run a complex poll on abortion, as Vox did earlier this year, what they find is people are all over the map on this issue.

In sum, people want women to be able to get abortions for the “right” reasons and they want a filter to somehow stop women from getting them for the “wrong” ones. They get hung up on these myths that women have “shallow” or “silly” justifications for abortion and want there to be some kind of mechanism to stop that.

This is about needing to be reassured that someone else—someone in authority and who is likely male—is making the final decision, and not the woman herself.

There are countries where that’s actually the policy on abortion. In a lot of western Europe, for instance, women can only get abortions after a panel of doctors approves their reasons for getting one. (France recently repealed this requirement on the grounds that it is sexist.) But what we know is that nearly every single request for an abortion gets approved. It turns out that, contrary to people’s concerns, women really are the best judges of when they need an abortion and inviting others to evaluate their reasons is, at best, redundant.

None of this is making an apology for people’s sexist fears about female autonomy. It’s important to understand, though, that is what the abortion debate hinges on, rather than concerns about “life.” Anti-choicers get this. That’s why nearly all anti-abortion rhetoric in recent years, including the Pope’s recent statements about it, focuses this question on whether women are trustworthy. Anti-choicers very much would like you to believe that women are simply too emotional and hysterical to make good decisions and need to have decision-making power taken away from them for their “protection.”

It’s not clear at all, though, how well that rhetoric is resonating with the public at large. Sure, this CNN poll suggests there is a lot of anxiety out there about what women would do, should they be able to make abortion decisions under “any” circumstances. It’s doubtful, however, that most are as extreme as anti-choice activists in their negative views of women’s intelligence. I’m guessing a lot of them would say that they believe many, or even most, women know what they’re doing, but they just want some kind of system to reassure them that someone is monitoring these women’s choices to make sure they are making the “right” ones. 

Better polling could elucidate these issues. How many of the people who balk at letting women get abortions for “any” reason really don’t want abortion to be accessible, and how many of them are just getting distracted and confused by the myths about women getting abortions for “shallow” reasons? Would their answers be different if they were talking about some hypothetical woman or a woman they know and love? I suspect so, but since almost no polling companies drill down into these issues, there’s no way of knowing.

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