If you think voters are divided on abortion, think again
The right to a legal and safe abortion is an issue that is often portrayed as one of the most controversial and polarizing topics in our nation, influencing which political candidates we vote for and seemingly dividing the public.
But how divided is the country on the issue of abortion, really? Tresa Undem, founding partner at the nonpartisan research firm PerryUndem, decided to probe beyond what the conventional polling data suggested and find ways to get to the heart of what people really feel about this issue.
What she discovered was eye-opening: Public opinion on abortion is not nearly as divided as we thought.
Undem determined that the narrative that the country is “divided” likely comes from one of the most common question pollsters use to track opinion over time: “Do you think abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases?”
In December 2017, Quinnipiac found that 60 percent of voters think abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 34 percent think it should be illegal in all or most cases. Interestingly, the pollster framed these results as “the abortion issue continues to divide the nation.”
“This is the main question pollsters use to understand public opinion on abortion,” said Undem. “Given abortion has been legal for 45 years, we find the polling surprisingly abstract, outdated, and one-dimensional.”
So PerryUndem explored many dimensions of opinion in its independent study called “What We Don’t Know About Public Opinion On Abortion … Because We’ve Never Asked."
Unlike other public pollsters, Undem conducted six focus groups among voters across the political spectrum in order to help design the survey questions. “You have to get out and talk with people, hear how they think and talk about this issue, in order to craft relevant survey questions,” said Undem.
Based on the focus groups, in December PerryUndem conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,029 voters.
What they found is surprising. Data show much more common ground among voters, regardless of party affiliation, than the conventional polling suggests:
- 72 percent of voters do not want Roe v. Wade overturned.
- 88 percent would offer support to a loved one who had an abortion.
- 79 percent agree they respect religions that do not believe in abortions and at the same time respect that women have a choice to have one.
The Guttmacher Institute estimates that nearly one in four women will decide to have an abortion in her lifetime. In focus groups, Undem asked voters how they want access and the experience to be and then used those responses to measure opinions in the representative survey.
When thinking of a woman who has decided to have an abortion, surprisingly large majorities of voters said they want the experience to be supportive (83 percent), affordable (82 percent), without added burdens (81 percent), and in her community (80 percent). Large majorities of voters also want a woman to feel supported (88 percent), in control (84 percent), without shame (75 percent), and not guilty (73 percent).
“These findings are not what you would expect if all you know about public opinion comes from the conventional, abstract polling question about legality,” Undem said.
Why, then, have the media and pollsters continued to cover this issue as divisive? “One answer might be that newsrooms are still dominated by white men in leadership positions,” stated Carrie Brown, Social Journalism program director at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Indeed, Undem’s research shows how differently people of each gender feel and think about pregnancy. For example, majorities of women of reproductive age have experienced dread or panic at a time they thought they might be pregnant — not an experience most men have felt in response to a partner thinking she might be pregnant. Majorities of voters say parenthood completely changes a mother’s life, not a father’s. Undem also pointed to a March 2017 survey in which only 37 percent of male voters said that they have benefited from any women in their lives having access to affordable birth control.
“What are the implications of men being the gatekeepers and storytellers on abortion when they have a very different relationship to the issue?” Brown asked. One implication may be an overreliance on framing the issue politically rather than with a view to how policies may affect women and their families.
Indeed, the majority of media stories on the issue of abortion are written by men. The Women’s Media Center report “The Gender Gap in Coverage of Reproductive Issues” found that women wrote just 37 percent of reproductive issues media stories and men wrote 52 percent.
According to a recent study in the peer-reviewed journal Contraception, when journalists cover abortion, stories play up political conflict and demand a “both sides” framing to the issue, which Undem’s research shows voters dislike. A majority (78 percent), including 69 percent of Republican voters, agree with a sentiment raised numerous times in the focus groups: “I don’t think this issue should be so political or politicized.”
When people are asked what they hear about the issue from “the news media,” 70 percent say they hear more about “the politics around abortion” vs. 10 percent “the facts.” The rest (19 percent) said “not sure” — likely a reflection of not hearing much at all.
“In addition to the longstanding need to diversify newsrooms with more women and journalists of color, editors must recognize that sweeping changes in reproductive health care isn’t a niche ‘women’s issue’ but a big story that demands sustained attention,” noted Brown. “Fears of being accused of bias need to be put aside to satisfy growing demand for information about policy changes that affect so many lives.”
Surprisingly, Undem did find division within a group that might be expected to be unified: voters who self-identify as Republican (30 percent of voters). A majority of Republicans (53 percent) do not want to overturn the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade and 45 percent do. Republicans are split on whether the Trump administration and Congress should work to restrict (54 percent) or protect (44 percent) women’s rights on abortion.
What divides Republicans on this issue? Interestingly, the division seems to relate to views toward women and gender. For example, anti-abortion Republicans are more likely to disagree that the country would be better off with more women in political office (57 percent) than Republicans who support abortion rights (34 percent). They are more likely to say men in office can represent women just as well as women politicians (69 percent vs. 40 percent). Anti-abortion Republicans are also more likely to feel “more comfortable with women having traditional roles in society, such as caring for children and family” (60 percent vs. 43 percent).
Undem’s breakthrough study shows us that divides may not always be as deep as we perceive them to be. It could just be a matter of asking the right questions, contextualizing them with real-life feelings and experiences, and being aware of how the media and politicians often misrepresent these issues. If we can create more room for more accurate, factual discussions and portrayals of abortion, including what people really think about it, we will have a better chance at achieving more reasonable debates and, ultimately, policy.
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