Fact and Fiction: What Americans Really Think About Abortion

In America today few if any issues are debated more passionately and contentiously than abortion. Yet, recent polling data reveal that most Americans are profoundly ignorant about all phases of the abortion question. What first appears to be a profound irony may in fact be the very reason that public arguments about abortion produce so much heat, and so little light.

Recent polls demonstrate misconceptions in two fundamental areas: what the abortion laws and court decisions really entail, and how many (and for what reasons) abortions are performed in the United States. At the end of February, Americans United for Life (AUL), a Chicago- based “public interest law firm and educational organization,” released a poll conducted by the Gallup organization that reaches the heart of what people believe and know (or rather, do not know) about abortion law and policy. And a late 1990 survey executed by the Wirthlin group for the National Council of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), demonstrates the depth of public ignorance about the frequency of abortion.

The AUL survey asks specific and carefully worded questions about the acceptability of abortion, as well as questions that reveal what respondents know about important court decisions and public statutes. The questionnaire was designed by the noted sociologist of religion James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia, in concert with Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University and Carl Bowman of Bridgewater College. Professor Hunter ex-plains that the wording and sequence of the questions are “based upon an extensive review of the empirical and theoretical literature on this topic and the sociology of social issues.” The goal, he continues, “was to produce the most objective and impartial instrument possible.” The most important conclusion to be drawn from these questions is that most Americans disapprove of the great majority of actual abortions performed in the United States.

What Do People Believe?

One of the first steps taken in the survey is to get beyond the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” labels. On the surface, about 42 percent of respondents describe themselves as either “strongly pro-life” or “moderately pro-life,” 33 percent describe themselves as either “strongly pro- choice” or “moderately pro-choice,” and 23 percent describe themselves as neutral. But when asked whether they approve or disapprove of abortion under specific circumstances people reveal much more clearly what they think of the practice.

Previous surveys, the AUL executive summary says, “establish that most abortions are performed for reasons other than a threat to the life of the mother, pregnancy conceived in rape or incest, or serious fetal deformity. Thus, when respondents disapprove of abortion for reasons other than these, they are classified ‘often disapprove’ because they oppose abortion in the circumstances under which it is most often performed.”

Using this logic, the AUL survey concludes that though the respondents may not be conscious of it, only 26 percent of them “seldom disapprove” of elective abortion, while a full 74 percent either “consistently disapprove” (25 percent) or “often disapprove” (49 percent) of the abortions obtained in this country. In short, a large majority of Americans disapprove of the vast majority of abortions actually performed.

For example, fewer than 30 percent of the Gallup poll participants approve of abortion for non-medical or non-traumatic reasons during the first three months of pregnancy, and approval drops to 15 percent for the second and third trimesters. Yet over 95 percent of all abortions are for non-medical and non-traumatic reasons. This means that well over 70 percent of respondents disapprove of virtually all abortions actually performed in America, but most do not know that they disapprove so often. (For the exact figures from Gallup, as well as for favored restrictions on abortion, see the accompanying tables.)

What Do People Know?

Most people do not know how often they disapprove of abortion because most Americans do not know the number of legal abortions performed, the reasons for these abortions, or the great latitude the law offers to women who abort their children. The survey demonstrates that 90 percent of Americans do not have an accurate understanding of the premier abortion case, Roe v. Wade, much less of its legal ramifications.

Roe v. Wade permits abortion for any reason until the fetus is determined to be viable by the abortionist. Viability is generally said to occur at the end of the sixth month of pregnancy. After that, states must permit only those abortions that are necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother. But in Doe v. Bolton the Supreme Court went on to define health as “all factors relevant to the well-being of the patient, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age.” With this sweeping language, the Court effectively permitted abortions for any reason during the entire duration of pregnancy.

Yet 42 percent of Americans think that under the “constraints” of Roe v. Wade abortion is legal only during the first three months of pregnancy. Sixteen percent said that Roe v. Wade allows abortion only when, in the first three months of pregnancy, the mother’s life is in danger. Another 26 percent think that the decision allows abortion for any reason, but only for the first three months. And not only were these three groups (42 percent of the nation) just plain wrong, another 35 percent answered that they were not familiar at all with the scope of Roe v. Wade. Only about one person in 10 (11 percent) understood that Roe allows abortion at any time for any reason.

If the public is so misinformed about the legality of abortion, it should come as no surprise that it is also ignorant about the number of abortions. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research foundation largely funded by Planned Parenthood of America, has reported that about 4,400 abortions are performed per day, or about 1.6 million per year. Since abortion is such a contentious issue, one expects Guttmacher calculations to be cautious and conservative; one can thus assume that this is the minimum number of annual abortions. Nonetheless, the Wirthlin Poll found that a startling 85 percent of Americans do not know that between 1 million and 2 million elective abortions are performed each year. Fifty-eight percent thought that fewer than 1 million abortions are performed yearly; 47 percent guessed less than 500,000; and a full 31 percent put the number at less than 100,000.

Americans simply are not aware of how common a practice abortion is in this country. Many do not realize when they identify themselves as “pro-choice” that (a) over 95 percent of abortions are for non-medical/non-traumatic reasons; (b) over 1.6 million are performed per year; and (c) all of these abortions are legal under Roe v. Wade.

What Do Catholics Think and Believe?

Like most surveys of their type, the AUL/Gallup poll and the NCCB/Wirthlin Group poll break down responses by the religious affiliation respondents give. In the Gallup poll, the data correlate with what earlier surveys have shown: Roman Catholics do not appear to be appreciably more opposed to abortion than the average American. About 30 percent of all respondents to the first poll are opposed to abortion in the case of rape or incest during the first trimester, while about 35 percent of Catholics are so opposed. Similarly, 45 percent of the general survey, compared to 52 percent of Catholics, oppose abortion for a perceived threat to the mental or emotional health of the woman. Thus, while the Catholic Church strongly and unequivocally proscribes abortion, Catholics do not appear to be significantly more opposed to abortion than the general population.

But the NCCB/Wirthlin Group poll tells the rest of the story. Rather than simply asking respondents to state their religious preference, the survey asks about their actual religious practices. For those identifying themselves simply as “Catholic,” the numbers are almost identical to “Catholic” responses in the AUL/Gallup poll, which is to say, almost identical to responses from the general populace. But for those Catholics who identify themselves as active — those who attend weekly Mass — the number of Catholics opposed to abortion is significantly higher. Both polls agree that only 55 percent of the general population favors prohibiting abortion after the first three months of pregnancy, as long as exceptions are made in cases of rape and incest or danger to the life of the mother. The rest of the general populace (45 percent) think that less serious reasons ought to be sufficient for having an abortion. By comparison, 82 percent of active Catholics think that rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother should be the only exceptions to an abortion prohibition. And a significant proportion of the remaining 18 percent of active Catholics questions the morality even of these limited exceptions.

The same kind of differences appear on questions about the status of the fetus from the moment of conception. The Gallup poll asked when the “right” of the child to be born outweighs the mother’s “right” to an abortion. Fifty percent of the general sample (compared to 57 percent of all Catholics) said the child’s right outweighs the mother’s at the moment of conception; 16 percent of the sample (compared to 17 percent of all Catholics) said “when the mother first feels movement”; and 16 percent of the sample (compared to 13 percent of all Catholics) said when the baby could survive on its own. The Wirthlin poll, on the other hand, yielded similar statistics for the general population, but much different figures for Catholics. When asked if “the life of a person begins at the moment of conception,” 49 percent of the whole population, and 61 percent of all Catholics, said yes. Among active Catholics, 75 percent agreed.

The difference in these numbers is not difficult to understand. A person who was raised in a mainline Protestant family but has not been to church in 25 years will most likely say that he has no religious affiliation. The same person raised in a Catholic family, though he has long ceased to practice Catholicism, will usually identify himself as a Catholic. “Once a Catholic always a Catholic” is the rule, unless one has specifically converted to another tradition. Thus the way self-described “Catholics” respond to any moral issue is not going to be dramatically different from the way the general population responds. On the other hand, those who identify themselves with an active religious community (whether Catholic or Protestant) tend to answer quite differently.

These important polls show that Americans are alarmingly ignorant of the facts on an issue about which many hold strong and unyielding positions. More importantly, the polls show that commitment to a particular religious tradition, usually Roman Catholic or evangelical Protestant, is the most consistent common element among those who oppose abortion. Unfortunately, even those who consistently disapprove of abortion are only marginally better informed about the facts.

About the number of abortions performed, as about the laws and court rulings that govern their procurement, ignorance is the rule. Public consensus may never be achieved on this vexing problem. And perhaps public consensus should not even be the primary focus of Catholics and evangelicals. But surely more knowledge of the plain facts might lead to a public conversation which is both more mannerly and more fruitful.


Kenneth R. Craycraft is Bradley Doctoral Fellow at Boston College. Before his conversion to Roman Catholicism, he was a minister in the evangelical Christian Church, and a graduate of Cincinnati Christian Seminary.

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