A recent poll, conducted by the ever reliable Pew Research Center, shows that support for abortion has declined. The public is now almost divided 50-50 on the issue. The apparent shift in opinion has occurred in the last twelve months. In 2008 a Pew poll found those in favor of keeping abortion legal outnumbered opponents 54-40%. The new poll is 47-45%. This is, according to researchers, a fairly significant shift in opinion. The problem is that this new survey did not seek to find reasons for this shift but I expect we will have more polling on this question in time.
Pew researchers pointed out that this shift has occurred since the election of President Obama, a strong supporter of pro-choice law who has said he would like to reduce the number of abortions while keeping it perfectly legal. (The reality is he wants to expand the practice as widely as possible from everything he has said and one to this point!)
Gregory Smith, a senior researcher at Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, worked on the poll. Smith says, “The size of the shift is modest, but the consistency with which we see it occurring and the implications it has for the overall dynamics of the debate make it significant.” But why? That is the proverbial $64,000 question.
Abortion was not a major issue in last year’s presidential debate but the health care issue has brought it back to the forefront as I noted several weeks ago. The question of granting government money to perform abortions has become a very contentious issue in the health care quagmire.
But there appears to be more here than the health care debate. With an abortion advocate now in the White House opponents are much more engaged and energized than pro-choice advocates, who are getting more and more of what they want these days. Significant percentages of people believe President Obama will go “too far” in supporting abortion. This seems to reflect the idea that America still has a fairly conservative middle and extremes make people push back. Obama’s views on abortion are radically liberal, not simply liberal. The more this is understand the more, it seems, the pro-life view will become an issue with a majority of America once again.
Among those polled some responded openly about why they had changed their view on abortion. Jackie Cutts, of Jacksonville, Florida, was one who admitted she changed her view from pro-choice to pro-life. She told Pew her reason for changing her view was having children, not politics. “What made me change,” she said, “was realizing that at conception the heartbeat and the life of the person begins.”
Personally, I think this is the reason most people change their mind. The other is conversion. Many hurting and spiritually confused people come to know Christ personally and then rethink their view on abortion. I know them. Maybe you do too. A change of heart changes their political view as well, which reminds us that if you have a person’s heart you very often, though not always, have the person’s response to major ethical issues like abortion.
One number, however, jumps out if you study this polling carefully. In 2006 28% of respondents said abortion was a “critical issue.” In 2009 that number was only 15%. This tells me that the economy is still the big issue for most Americans. When jobs and money are the big issues then others, like abortion, are not nearly as important. This stands to reason but it also underscores the major need for spiritual transformation in the church. Unless the church is awakened there is still little reason to believe the culture will change on this life-and-death issue.
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Putting on my statistician hat today –
If we examine the responses to these survey items (questions) one at a time, it is hard to say what is really going on. Consider the last one you cited, about whether abortion is a critical issue. I would guess that much of the recent short-term shift in this item is due to the economy. But there may also be a long-term shift due to the growing realization that abortion policy is largely determined by the courts, that Roe v. Wade is a firmly established legal precedent, and growing sense of hopelessness/ambivalence among pro-lifers. Also, people’s sense about what is a critical issue at any time is profoundly shaped by news media. More than ever before, survey respondents will mentally identify surveys with the news media (not surprising) and many will provide an answer that they think the interviewer, whom they perceive as representing the media, will want to hear. (Survey methodologists call this “satisficing.”) Some participants will interpret the “critical issue” question as “What are the media talking about these days?” rather than “What do I personally care about?”
Media reports tend to portray the nation as divided into two camps with respect to abortion: pro-life and pro-choice. But multivariate analyses have consistently shown that there are actually three dominant groups: (1) those who support legalized abortion on demand, (2) those who oppose legalized abortion in most cases, and (3 those who support legalized abortion when there is an ethical/moral dilemma (life/health of the mother is seriously threatened, rape, incest, etc) but oppose it for social/economic reasons (woman just doesn’t want any more children). The largest group in the United States is (1). The smallest group is (2). But taken together, (2) and (3) do form a majority. The rates of membership in these three categories has changed very slowly over time. Membership in these three categories over time can be tracked by the General Social Survey, which happens every two years. I’m not sure if the Pew study you cited will allow us to identify the three groups.
I have had some training in statistical reasearch and designing surveys. The one thing that I learned through this is that it is impossible to arrive at the truth (or even a true sense of a trend) through a survey. I have found that surveys usually reflect the bias of the surveyer because it is not possible to design a survey without bias.
Sean makes a valid point about bias, but obviously I cannot be as pessimistic as he, otherwise I would need to quit my day job. In my experience, the difficulty is not that the survey is not telling you “the truth.” The difficulty is that the truth is often complex, and the target quantities being estimated are often poorly defined, misunderstood or misrepresented. This reminds me of a conference that I attended a while back. Some very eminent social scientists were arguing over the meaning of an IQ score. Is an IQ score a measure of ability? Or is an IQ score a measure of achievement? After a heated exchange, they agreed on the following statement: An IQ score is an unbiased estimate of what the IQ test actually measures. Whatever that is.