Is Legal Abortion After 20 Weeks Politically Viable?

How you look at things.
Sept. 3 2013 1:27 PM

Are Late Abortions Politically Viable?

Planned Parenthood says its new poll shows voters oppose an abortion ban at 20 weeks. Is that true?

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5. Loaded scenarios. The poll never refers simply to fetal abnormalities. Each time, in a total of five questions, it describes the abnormalities as “severe.” In two questions, it specifies abnormalities that “would cause fetal death or extreme disability.” Likewise, it asks not simply about health but about cases in which the woman, if forced to carry the pregnancy to term, would face “serious health risks,” “serious, long-lasting health problems,” or “serious, permanent health problems.” Why does the questionnaire phrase these scenarios so gravely? Because otherwise, you don’t get a reliable majority against the ban.

The pollsters note:

“By a 20-point margin (54% to 34%), voters oppose a ban that would make an exception only for the life of the woman after 20 weeks (without a health exception). But ‘amending’ this restriction to allow for other circumstances does not alter voters’ objections to such bans. For example, by a similarly strong 17-point margin (53% to 36%), voters also oppose a ban that allows exceptions for both the life of the woman and limited cases involving her health.”

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The pollsters portray this as evidence of solid opposition to a 20-week ban. But if you think women’s health is an important reason to permit abortions, the failure of this exception to influence respondents is alarming. They also omitted from their memo the results of a question about another scenario, in which “a woman's doctor determines that the woman would be permanently unable to become pregnant again if she carried the pregnancy to term.” In that case, a plurality but not a majority (45 to 38 percent) said abortion after 20 weeks should be legal. These are warning signs that in the political fight against 20-week bans, speaking broadly about women’s health won’t be enough.

6. Viability vs. pain. No published poll, to my knowledge, has asked respondents to choose between the rationale for drawing a line at 20 weeks post-fertilization (pain) and the rationale for drawing the line two weeks later (viability). (Gestational age is estimated from about two weeks prior to fertilization, on average, so viability occurs in the vicinity of 22 weeks post-fertilization or 24 weeks gestation.) The Planned Parenthood poll doesn’t ask this question, either. It includes a scenario in which “a woman's doctor determines that the fetus is not yet viable,” but that scenario also entails unspecified “health and personal circumstances.” What would voters say if you asked them to choose between imposing a deadline at the onset of pain capability (whenever that is—most medical authorities dispute that it’s at 20 weeks) and imposing a deadline at viability? That’s the question any neutral pollster should want to ask.

7. Who has the upper hand? Previous surveys indicated that pro-lifers held the advantage here. Planned Parenthood’s survey doesn’t refute that. It shows that if you’re pro-choice, you can win the debate. But it will be hard. If voters simply choose between 20 and 24 weeks, you’ll lose. You have to focus the debate on extreme scenarios. You have to hope pro-lifers don’t amend their bans to exempt those scenarios. And you have to deal with the fact that in the window between 20 and 22 weeks, abortion really is unrestricted. You have to demonstrate that people don’t abuse that freedom of choice—that they have particularly good reasons for terminating pregnancies they’ve carried that far. Otherwise, on the whole, the public seems willing to step in.

William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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