Guest Column

Mainstream media mislead on new abortion poll that used skewed wording


(National Review) On Thursday, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released the results of a new poll on sanctity-of-life issues. Between March 2022 and December 2022, they posed a range of questions to 22,894 adults. This is a very large sample and allows for some good analysis of abortion attitudes among various regional, religious, and demographic subgroups. This poll has already been covered by a number of mainstream media outlets, including the Washington Post, USA Today, Religion News Service, and Time.

Both the Washington Post and USA Today quickly spun the results of the PRRI poll to argue that majorities in most states support legal abortion. Specifically, the poll found that in 43 states, majorities thought that abortion should be legal in “most cases” or in “all cases.” Unfortunately, this is just another sad example of the mainstream media amplifying the results of an abortion poll whose wording produces a result they support.

Polls, like the recent PRRI poll, that ask respondents whether abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases typically produce majorities supporting legal abortion.

However, had PRRI used different wording for the pro-life options, the results would have likely shown much greater opposition to abortion.

Indeed, since the mid 1990s, Gallup has been asking respondents whether abortion should be legal under any circumstances, legal in most circumstances, legal only in a few circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances. In 42 straight Gallup polls between September 1994 and May 2021, a majority of respondents answered that abortion should be either “legal only in a few circumstances” or “illegal in all circumstances.” Combined support for the two most pro-life options in these 42 Gallup polls ranged between 52 percent and 63 percent.

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A very important finding from recent the PRRI poll that has received little media coverage is that, contrary to media spin, abortion attitudes have been very stable since the Supreme Court’s June 2022 Dobbs decision.

In March 2022, the PRRI poll found that 64 percent of Americans felt that abortion should be legal in “most cases” or “all cases.” PRRI surveys taken in August 2022, September 2022, and December 2022 found that the percentage saying that abortion should be legal in “most cases” or “all cases” ranged between 62 and 65 percent. In short, multiple PRRI surveys show that abortion attitudes remained virtually unchanged after Dobbs.

The demographic breakdown of the PRRI poll contains few surprises. Older Americans show greater opposition to abortion than do younger Americans — but the differences in abortion attitudes between age demographics were fairly small. One interesting finding is that young Americans are more polarized on abortion than are other age groups. Those between 18 and 25 show the greatest support for abortion being “legal in all circumstances” and “illegal in all circumstances.” The poll also shows below-average support for legal abortion among Hispanics. Finally, the poll shows that after Dobbs supporters of legal abortion became more likely to say that they would vote only for a candidate who shared their views on abortion.

The polls of the Public Religion Research Institute on sanctity-of-life issues have the ability to usefully inform debates. Their polls typically survey many more people than do polls conducted by various survey research firms. This allows more-nuanced analysis of abortion attitudes among various regional and demographic groups. Indeed, the finding from this year’s PRRI poll that abortion attitudes have exhibited little change after Dobbs is certainly noteworthy.

That said, it is unfortunate, but unsurprising, that media are amplifying the results of one survey question that consistently overstates support for legal abortion. As always, pro-lifers should not be discouraged and should stay the course.

Editor’s Note: This article was published at National Review and is reprinted here with permission.

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