Friday afternoon rebuttal: Looking closely at a “strongly pro-life” poll result

A recent op-ed by Barbara L. Lyons of Wisconsin Right to Life carried a headline saying, “Poll finds Wisconsin residents strongly pro-life.” This was also the title of the WRL press release announcing the poll results. But here’s the subtitle: “The results continue to show strong support for laws to protect human life . . .” reads the press release, a more accurate appraisal, for the results show that most Wisconsinites do not want a total ban on abortion. The issue of abortion always involves two human lives, or potentially two, for separating a fetus from the mother, biologically speaking, is not possible. Some concern for the needs of the pregnant woman is quite apparent in the poll. And just how “strong” is the anti-abortion sentiment in the poll?

A pregnant woman
A pregnant woman (Photo credit: Swangerschaft via Wikipedia. CC, some rights reserved. Click on photo for copyright information.)

According to the results of the poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling and political advising firm, 13% say abortion should never be legal. 42% feel that abortion should be legal only to either save the life of the mother (15%) or also in cases of rape or incest (27%). This 55% of the Wisconsin population is what Wisconsin Right to Life calls the “pro-life view.”

The “pro-choice” position are those 45% who permit legal abortion for any reason (9%) or limit it to the first 3 months of pregnancy (29%) or the first 6 months (8%). Of course, if abortion is legal at all, there is a choice for a pregnant woman to make. (Wisconsin Right to Life itself seems to make an exception for saving the life of the woman–as in ectopic pregnancy– on its website . And in this 2011 memo to state legislators, WRL advises against a bill that would ban such an exception, saying it would be unconstitutional under federal law.)

So looked at another way, 87% of those in the POS poll support legal abortion to at least protect the life of the mother. I suppose you could say that this is a strong pro-life poll result, for very few Wisconsinites are willing to allow a woman to die for lack of an abortion. There may be some women who would prefer to die rather than have an abortion, but most people in Wisconsin seem to prefer to let the woman involved make that decision. And the difference between the pro-life position and the pro-choice position as described by WRL is only ten points, while the poll’s margin of error is 4.38%.

The Public Opinion Strategies poll done for Wisconsin Right to Life does not, unfortunately, break down the results by gender. (Notice, by the way, the poll’s first off-topic question, the results for which suggest a slightly more conservative, pro-Walker population sample.) It would be interesting to see how men and women answered, especially given the very gender-based nature of the abortion issue.

As a comparison, we can look at the results of a recent Marquette University poll; two of the questions focused on abortion. 26% of Wisconsin thought abortion should be legal in all cases while 36% felt abortion should be legal “in most cases.” That’s 62% in the “pro-choice” camp. Only 11% in the Marquette poll believed abortion should be totally illegal. On the question of mandatory ultrasounds for those seeking an abortion– 38% in favor, 56% opposed. The Public Opinion Strategies poll recorded 47% in favor, 46% opposed on the ultrasound question, well within the poll’s 4.38% margin of error.

What’s interesting about the Marquette poll is that only 22% identified themselves as “liberal” or “very liberal.” This means that a large chunk of moderates and conservatives have a fairly liberal attitude concerning abortion in the state. 30% of respondents were “born again” or evangelical Christians, but, again, only 11% in the Marquette poll wanted a total ban on abortion. Marquette did not provide separate polling results by gender either.

How, then, to account for the significant differences between the Wisconsin Right to Life poll and the Marquette University poll on the issue of abortion? Not being an expert poll scholar, I can’t say for sure. But the fact that Public Opinion Strategies is a partisan Republican outfit does raise a, excuse me, red flag, as it has been Republicans in the state and nation who are working to further restrict or eliminate access to legal abortion. Even if the POS poll is methodologically sound, the “pro-life” majority is not all that large, especially when we consider those who approve of legal exceptions for rape, incest and saving the mother’s life.

Should religious and conservative objections to abortion overrule individual and medical interests when it comes to state legislation? A group of reproductive care doctors recently went to Madison to speak to Republican legislators, to tell them the stories of their female patients who chose abortion and ask them not to “interfere with the sacred physician-patient relationship.” What’s clear is that for many in Wisconsin the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are not absolute, and there is a general recognition that not all women are prepared to carry a traumatic, unwanted pregnancy to term or seriously risk their lives or general health by giving birth. The terms of the abortion debate are simply not complex enough to capture what any one pregnant woman feels, but many women, for whom the debate is least abstract, consistently are telling us, pleading with us, to keep the option of a safe abortion legal. No poll is likely to change their minds.

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