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Divining Abortion Opinions Tough Job for Polls : Most People Found Uncomfortable, Confused in a ‘Complex, Middle Position’

Times Staff Writer

Now that it appears the abortion issue is to be tossed back into the hands of the American public, where do most people stand?

Don’t look to public opinion polls for the answer.

Abortion is a topic that leaves most people feeling uncomfortable and confused. Theirs is “a conditional, complex, middle position,” says Thomas W. Smith of the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Center, which has been tracking public sentiment on abortion since the early 1960s.

‘Shouldn’t Trust Pollsters’

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“Abortion is one of those issues in which, quite frankly, you shouldn’t trust the pollsters,” says Harrison Hickman, who should know, because he has done a series of polls for the National Abortion Rights Action League.

Surveys on abortion often yield contradictory results. Ask a question one way, and a solid majority of Americans will say that abortion should remain legal. Change the wording a bit, and the same group will favor banning it.

Nonetheless, from these surveys comes what both sides realize is the winning strategy in the nation’s war over abortion. “Just as the polls come out according to the way the question is asked, so will the outcome of elections depend on who is more successful in framing what the question is all about,” Hickman says.

“The key question for us is . . . whether a woman should be able to decide without government interference. The government interference argument is the one that we have been making the past few years,” says Douglas Gould, communications director for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

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Since March, the National Abortion Rights Action League has spent $2.5 million on a media campaign that sums its view of the debate in two words: “Who decides?”

‘One of Best Arguments’

“They’ve done their market research. They’ve done their polling. . . . One of their best arguments was the woman’s body and the government not interfering,” agrees Sandra Faucher, who directs the political action committee for the National Right to Life Committee, the nation’s largest anti-abortion group.

Faucher sees her side’s mission as a straightforward one. “We have to focus the abortion issue on abortion,” she contends.

In the years following the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision making abortion legal, public approval of abortion grew markedly.

But in the 1980s, that support began eroding. Abortion opponents made significant gains in swaying opinion during most of this decade, primarily because they were able to keep attention on the revulsion that most people feel toward abortion. Some of their most potent weapons were photographs that put “successful emphasis on the childlike characteristics of the fetus, and how early they appeared,” Smith says.

When the Supreme Court agreed to take on the issue last January, abortion suddenly was framed in the public mind as a question of privacy against government intrusion. This year, for the first time in at least five years, a University of Chicago’s poll showed a slight shift toward the pro-choice position.

Room for Inconsistency

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Polls make it clear that most people are against government playing a role in the abortion decision, but they also oppose making it an absolute right for women, regardless of their situation. That leaves a lot of ground for inconsistency.

Take, for example, a Gallup Poll conducted shortly after July’s U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a Missouri law that imposed a series of abortion restrictions.

Over half the public--55%--said it disapproved of the court’s decision. But almost the same percentage--54%--favored the most restrictive part of the Missouri law, a ban on abortions in public hospitals. About 52% also supported a Missouri requirement for testing fetal viability before performing abortions in the fifth month of pregnancy or later.

When people are asked about the question of abortion generally, poll after poll shows that most people favor leaving the abortion decision up to a woman and her doctor.

But when the questions get more specific, citing specific reasons for having an abortion, the same people will advocate banning it in most of the instances where it is actually used. Most favor allowing abortion to be legal only in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity and danger to the life of the woman--circumstances that apply to only a few of the 1.6 million abortions performed every year in the United States.

People Are Torn

The poll results are “a contradiction to some extent,” said Larry Hugick, a Gallup Organization vice president who has conducted abortion surveys. “It just shows how torn people are on the issue. There are so many different dimensions. People draw different conclusions depending on whether they are looking at a legal issue, a moral issue or a civil rights issue.”

People also respond differently, depending on the emphasis of the question they are asked. Two polls published this year by the Boston Globe demonstrate how this works.

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In March, the Globe’s pollster asked about abortions performed in a variety of circumstances. In instances where a woman is seeking it because she cannot afford a child--a reason cited for more than two-thirds of all abortions--only 34% thought abortion should be legal.

Shortly after the Supreme Court’s July decision giving states more leeway to regulate abortion, the Globe asked virtually the same question, but this time, it put it in terms of whether there should be “state government restriction” on abortion for women who could not afford children. With the addition of those words, opinion virtually reversed itself.

“It always depends, ultimately, on how things are worded,” says Gerry Chervinsky, president of KRC Communications Research, which conducted the poll for the Globe and Boston’s WBZ-TV.

“Both sides know that,” Times pollster I.A. Lewis adds. “That is why the abortion rights people are very careful to talk about choice. The anti-abortion side always talks about life.”

Staff writer Cathleen Decker contributed to this story.


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