The Political Peril of Second-Trimester Abortions

Think again.
Jan. 23 2014 3:55 PM

The Political Peril of Second-Trimester Abortions

464380797-anti-abortion-demonstrators-protest-in-front-of-the-us
Anti-abortion demonstrators protest at the Supreme Court on Jan. 22, 2014.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday I picked apart a poll, commissioned by the National Right to Life Committee, that purported to show that most Americans thought most abortions should be illegal. Now a second poll, taken in December by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion and just released by the Knights of Columbus, purports to show the same thing. It doesn’t prove that Americans think most abortions should be outlawed. But it does underscore a weakness in public support for abortion rights: Even the most pro-choice people aren’t sold on abortion rights beyond the first trimester.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

According to the Knights’ summary, the poll shows that “84% of Americans believe abortion should be restricted (within the first three months of pregnancy, in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother) or never allowed at all.” This is a dubious claim, based on the same six-point scale I criticized yesterday. The poll question, mirroring the question used by the NRLC, overloaded the pro-life side of the spectrum. Of the six possible abortion policies respondents were offered, three were extremely strict: making abortion completely illegal, making it illegal except to save the woman’s life, and making it illegal except in cases of rape or incest. (See the table on Page 3.) As a result, respondents who were inclined to pick whatever option was in the middle ended up choosing between option No. 4 (the exceptions for rape and incest) and option No. 3 (allowing abortion for three months only). As in the NRLC poll, half the sample picked one of the middle two options, and these respondents split almost evenly between them. The Knights counted all of these folks as part of their 84 percent.

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But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take these numbers seriously. Poll numbers are usually meaningful, even when they don’t mean exactly what the sponsors claim. In this case, the survey includes other data that add context and support to the six-point scale.

The poll analysis breaks down the pool of respondents into six categories. On one side are people who describe themselves as strongly or somewhat pro-life. On the other side are people who describe themselves as strongly or somewhat pro-choice. In the middle are people who sometimes think of themselves as pro-choice, and those who sometimes think of themselves as pro-life.

The group most worth studying is the strongly pro-choice constituency, comprising 27 percent of the whole sample. On the six-point scale, fewer than 10 percent of these respondents accepted any of the three options for banning elective abortions. But 49 percent accepted the option to allow abortion only in the first three months of pregnancy. That’s greater than the 41 percent who chose to allow abortion through the sixth month of pregnancy, as provided in Roe v. Wade. (See Page 4.)

Were these respondents, too, manipulated by the six-point scale? Were they unserious about drawing a line after the first trimester? Before you assume they were, consider some further data, shown on Page 7 of the report. Respondents were asked whether they supported banning abortions after 20 weeks (five months) of pregnancy except to save the life of the woman. Apparently, the question didn’t mention the rationale commonly offered for drawing a line at 20 weeks: fetal pain. Nevertheless, 74 percent of the entire sample endorsed a ban at this point, including 62 percent of the strongly pro-choice group.

This question wasn’t based on a stacked six-point scale. It was an up-or-down referendum on banning abortion at 20 weeks. And even the most pro-choice people in the sample—a group that endorsed “using tax dollars to pay for a woman's abortion if she cannot afford it” (69 percent), opposed “requiring women who want an abortion to be shown an ultrasound image of her fetus at least 24 hours before the procedure” (only 25 percent supported this), and opposed “changing laws to allow for some restrictions on abortion” (only 37 percent supported this)—agreed with the 20-week ban.

If you still don’t think the abortion rights movement has a serious problem in the second trimester, check out Page 12 of the report. When they were asked at what point life begins, 53 percent of respondents picked conception. Another 15 percent chose “within the first three months.” Another 8 percent chose “between three and six months.” By six months, 76 percent believed life was underway. That’s pretty close to the 74 percent who endorsed a ban at 20 weeks.

The Knights poll isn’t alone in highlighting this pattern. The year-old Gallup poll I linked to yesterday shows the same thing. Sixty-one percent of U.S. adults in that survey said abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy. Only 27 percent said it should be legal in the second three months.

This doesn’t mean that most Americans think most abortions should be illegal. According to the most recent government data, 92 percent of abortions are performed in the first trimester. Beyond that point, abortions are much rarer and much harder to defend, both morally and politically. Without the protection of the courts, it’s difficult to see how they’d stay legal.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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