How to Better Understand Abortion Polls (And Others Too) | Sojourners

How to Better Understand Abortion Polls (And Others Too)

As the country awaits the Supreme Court decision on federal abortion rights in Dobbs v. Jackson — which many expect will overturn Roe v. Wade — politicians, activists, pollsters, and news outlets are highlighting polling on abortion.

Polls are useful: They clarify national views on the legality and morality of abortion. Natalie Jackson, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), told Sojourners that polls can also highlight whether public policy is aligned with public opinion.

“Polling is one of the few institutionalized ways people can have their voice heard outside of voting,” Jackson said.

But polling, especially on abortion, can also be confusing; some stats seem to contradict each other, making it difficult to determine what’s actually true.

The discrepancy often lies in how the survey questions were asked: “Some people are angling their questions to get specific responses,” Jackson said. “When you see conflicting (information), don’t just throw up your hands. Somebody is wrong. Look for the differences.”

Understanding terminology

The terminology used in polling can clarify or obfuscate results.

PRRI, a nonpartisan research organization that studies religion, culture, and politics, does not use the terminology “pro-life” or “pro-choice” in their polling because these terms carry partisan “valence and misconceptions,” Jackson said. Instead, she said that PRRI tries to uses precise terms like “the legality of abortion” or “the illegality of abortion.”

PRRI reported in their 2018 American Values Atlas that 54 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in most cases (31 percent) or all cases (23 percent). To come to this conclusion, PRRI conducted more than 40,000 telephone interviews over the span of nine months. Rather than asking respondents to define themselves as “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” they asked: “Do you think abortion should be legal in a) all cases, b) legal in most cases, c) illegal in most cases, d) illegal in all cases, or e) don’t know/refused.” 

In 2022, however, PRRI found that 64 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in most or all cases. The survey that found those results was conducted among a representative sample of just under 5,500 people. The margin of error for the 2022 results was 1.6 percentge points, whereas the margin of error for 2018 was .5 percentage points.

When PRRI needs to do a survey, they send the survey to a “field house,” a company that distributes surveys.

PRRI’s field house is Ipsos, a market research and consulting firm. Ipsos will send the survey to a “panel,” representative sample of people selected to mirror the country’s demography. Ipsos builds panels by taking a random sample of addresses from a USPS file, contacting people living at those addresses, and asking them to sign up for their surveys.

Religious attitudes on abortion 

Springtide Research, which studies Generation Z, used the term “reproductive rights” in their report “The State of Religion & Young People 2021: Navigating Uncertainty,” to highlight what they call the “value gap:” the gap between issues Gen Z cares about and what Gen Z believes their religious or faith communities care about.

Springtide found that 75 percent of people ages 13-25 said they “care deeply” about reproductive rights, while only 54 percent believe their religious/faith communities care about reproductive rights — a 21 percent “value gap.”

But these statistics do not necessarily reveal what Gen Z believes about the legalization of abortion, said Kevin Singer, head of media and public relations at Springtide.

“A poll can make a group seem really big and united, whereas Gen Z could have a million different reasons why they either support [full legal abortion], support it with more hesitancy, or don’t support it [at all],” Singer said.

A group that says they are for “legalizing abortion” might differ if the survey defines abortion as legal up to a certain week of pregnancy. And people who are against legalization except for “rare occasions” might disagree on what those occasions look like, Singer said.

When pollsters sort data from particular religious groups by sect, race, and ethnicity, polls can also highlight the variety of opinions within a religious group. Usually, most in-depth polling highlights the variety of Christian opinions in the United States.

“We report on mostly Christian groups and religiously unaffiliated, because those are the largest groups in the United States,” Besheer Mohamed, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan organization that produces national polling and demography data, told Sojourners. “When you’re looking at other religious groups, say Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists, all of those groups are no less than well under 5 percent of the population. Jews are closer to 2 percent. Muslims are closer to 1 percent. Buddhists and Hindus are lower than that.”

Pew still examines and reports on the views of religious minority groups, but the sample size for those groups are smaller, affecting the margin of error. 

In national polling, there is never a perfect sample: “We can send invitations to a random sample of people, but we don’t control who accepts it and who doesn’t,” Mohamed said. To solve this problem, Pew will compare their findings with census data or voter registration data to see if a certain population has been over or underrepresented and adjust their results accordingly.

Finding nuance

In a 2022 poll, Pew looked at the percent of U.S. adults who say they personally know someone (such as a close friend, family member or themselves) who has had an abortion, Pew reported a “gender gap” — more women than men said they know someone who has had an abortion. These results were true regardless of race, age, or religious sect. However, that data doesn’t reveal whether respondents approve or disapprove of the legality or morality of abortion.

Quantitative data does not always capture abortion’s complexities, and only about a third of the population has given “a lot of thought,” Mohamed said, citing 2022 Pew research.

Jackson said that most surveys don’t have “concrete” answers for abortion policy or thought broadly. The Pew 2022 study found that a third of people said “both that human life begins at conception and that the decision to have an abortion belongs solely to the woman.”

“If you talk to people about the issue, you’ll get a lot of nuance. So, of course, when we survey people about it, we get a lot of nuance too,” she said.

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