Why Do Americans Support Banning Abortion at 20 Weeks?

How you look at things.
July 26 2013 6:28 PM

The Politics of Pain

In the debate over banning abortions at 20 weeks, pro-lifers have the upper hand.

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4. Who has the upper hand? Pro-lifers do. The Post/ABC poll lays this bare. Here’s the full text of its question: “The U.S. Supreme Court has said abortion is legal without restriction in about the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. Some states have passed laws reducing this to 20 weeks. If it has to be one or the other, would you rather have abortions legal without restriction up to 20 weeks, or up to 24 weeks?”

It’s reasonable to speculate that the phrase “without restriction” alienated some respondents and made them more likely to choose the earlier time limit. It’s also possible that the passive language—“reduce” rather than “ban”—soothed people who might otherwise worry about a new abortion law. But it’s hard to believe that these factors could account for the enormous gap that resulted: 56 percent of respondents chose 20 weeks, while only 27 percent chose 24 weeks.

In fact, those numbers understate the pro-life tilt. Eight percent of respondents volunteered that abortion should never be legal. Two percent said they wanted an earlier time limit than 20 weeks. So the percentage of respondents who would have chosen 20 weeks if they’d answered the question as it was posed isn’t 56 percent. It’s more like 66 percent.

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You can argue that this number is inflated by the poll’s stipulation that “it has to be one or the other.” Maybe people who were unsure or indifferent shrugged and picked 20 weeks. But then you’d have to account for the same factor on the other side of the ledger. If the percentage of respondents who preferred the 24-week limit was only 27 percent, how many of those people actually felt strongly about it? How meager is the constituency for 24 weeks?

That could turn out to be the decisive factor. What’s striking about the Post/ABC question is that it strips out all the background noise and frames the issue as a simple numerical choice. Which limit do you prefer: 24 or 20? As a general rule, for any question being debated, the comparative, stripped-down version is the one most likely to prevail. Pushing larger themes onto a legislative vote, or isolating one option while obscuring the other, takes work.

Over the years, the theme that has served pro-choicers most effectively is government interference. Americans who dislike a social practice are often susceptible to the argument that despite their feelings, the government should stay out of it. But that didn’t work in the WSJ/NBC poll. Respondents were told that while some people believe “20 weeks after fertilization is the point at which a fetus is capable of experiencing pain,” other people believe “medical decisions should be between a woman and her doctor, and government should not be involved.” The result—44 percent in favor of the ban, 37 percent against it—suggests that the power of pro-choice ideology in this debate may be limited.

5. What should future polls ask? I’d suggest three things. First, the surveys published to date have asked respondents to choose either a) between 20 and 24 weeks or b) between assertions of fetal pain and the idea of abortion rights or government noninterference generally. But if we’re going to debate 20 versus 24 weeks, why not ask people to choose between the rationale for pain and the rationale for drawing the line at viability? Isn’t that the real question?

Second, none of the published polls mentions that assertions of fetal pain capability at 20 weeks are strongly disputed by most scientists. They could be wrong, but that’s the prevailing view. I’d like to see how that affects the numbers.

Third, it isn’t clear to what extent people are moved by the risk of fetal pain, as opposed to fetal pain capability. Do they believe that a fetus capable of feeling pain is too fully human to kill? Or do they simply think it’s wrong to cause pain? There’s a simple way to force the issue: Offer them two choices at 20 weeks, an abortion ban or mandatory fetal anesthesia. What do you think they’ll say?