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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Abortion, Healthcare Legislation, and the People's View

One of the most contentious issues involved in last weekend’s House debate on healthcare was abortion. Conservatives managed to get a clause in the bill that would prohibit federal money from being used to pay for abortions through any plan, public or private.

This was viewed as a victory by "pro-life" groups. It was viewed as a significant setback for abortion rights groups (“...Obliterates Women's Fundamental Right to Choose”). Some liberal House members are fighting back. According to news reports, “...at least 40 House members furious about 11th-hour change have since threatened to torpedo the bill if the abortion language remains.”

As the The Hill put it: “Activists on both sides believe they can prevail in the Senate.” The Hill quotes Laurie Rubiner, vice president for public policy for Planned Parenthood, as saying: “We’ve got millions of pro-choice voters and when our voters get unhappy, they take action.” The article also quoted National Right to Life Committee legislative director Douglas Johnson as saying that senators who support abortion rights are “not going to vote for public funding of abortion in this public glare.”

All of this contention now moves to the Senate. An Associated Press news account looked ahead to the Senate debate and predicted: “Abortion Could Roil Senate Health Care Debate” in their headline.

Even President Obama got into the act, delicately arguing that he was not comfortable with the abortion restrictions inserted, saying that “we’re not restricting women’s insurance choices.”

For those Senate and House members looking for guidance from the American people, what can we tell them?


I would say first that abortion is always a hot button issue. Like many values issues relating to life, death, marriage, and sex, it has enduring connections to Americans’ emotions and passion. It is an intense issue for those who feel strongly about it on either side. Hence the vituperation from both sides now.


It is not, however, a high priority issue for the broad American public. In our latest November update, less than 1% of Americans mentioned abortion as the most important problem facing the country. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll included “social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage” in a list of seven potential priorities for the federal government to address. The results? Social issues was dead last in the list, chosen by only 3% of respondents as the top priority for government.

And on the topic itself? The majority of Americans remain in the middle on abortion. Given a three-part choice, the majority of Americans say abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances. A minority of 21% say it should be legal in all circumstances. A slightly smaller group of 18% say it should be illegal in all circumstances. (There has been a shift to the more conservative stance on the issue. The percent of Americans wanting abortion to be totally legal was routinely in the mid-twenty percent range earlier this decade. And as high as 33-34% in the early 1990s.)

Follow up questions show that the majority of those saying there should be restrictions on abortion say abortion should be legal “only in a few circumstances.” It would thus appear from the data that the majority of Americans would, in theory, be OK with federal legislation that restricts abortion, as long as it doesn’t outlaw it completely. We have no research yet that asks Americans specifically about abortion in this most recent incarnation of the healthcare bill.

There are major political divisions in views on abortion. Republicans are much more likely to respond to survey questions about abortion in negative ways than are Democrats. So the partisan nature of the battle lines drawn on abortion and healthcare legislation are not surprising.

One of the major groups pushing for abortion restrictions in healthcare legislation was the Roman Catholic Church. As Peter Wallsten from The Wall Street Journal summarized: “Injecting itself aggressively into the healthcare debate, the Roman Catholic Church in America has emerged as a major political force with the potential to upend a key piece of President Barack Obama's agenda. Behind-the-scenes lobbying, coupled with a grassroots mobilization of Catholic churches across the country, led the House Saturday to pass an amendment to its healthcare bill barring anyone who receives a new tax credit from enrolling in a plan that covers abortion, a once-unthinkable event in Democrat-dominated Washington.”

Fighting abortion is, of course, a core component of official Catholic doctrine (“The Catholic Church has always condemned abortion as a grave evil”).

However, that official Catholic policy does not appear to be disproportionately representative of rank-and-file Catholics across the country. Catholics taken as a group (about 25% of Americans) are no different from all Americans on their position on abortion.


To be sure, highly religious Catholics are more opposed to abortion than less religious Catholics. But so are highly religious Protestants more opposed to abortion than less religious Protestants. Those seeking to keep abortion funding out of the Senate version of the healthcare bill therefore will find support from the Catholic hierarchy and from highly religious Catholics. But an appeal on the abortion issue to the average Catholic will be no more likely to find receptive ears than an appeal to all Americans.

Women? I was interested to see this statement by the MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow on Meet the Press Sunday: “It’s the biggest restriction on abortion access in this country in a generation . . . I think you can expect Democratic women to sit on their hands at least if not revolt if that doesn’t get take out in conference.”

Maddow refers to Democratic women in her statement. But the implication of her statement seems to mirror a common conception that women in general are more supportive of abortion rights than are men. This is not generally backed up by the data. There seems to be minimal gender differences in abortion attitudes. In Gallup’s mid-July survey on abortion, for example, women were very slightly more likely than men to pick both extreme positions on Gallup’s classic three-part question. In other words, women may have a little more intense feelings on abortion, but it skews in both directions.

3 comments:

CynthiaE said...
November 11, 2009 at 10:58 AM  

With so much zealous propaganda out there on the abortion issue, I think it's healthy for both sides to be reminded of how most Americans really feel about this volatile issue- moderate. Only minorities find themselves on one extreme or the other, yet those extremes are the loudest voices in the debate. Thanks to Gallup for reminding us there are other voices to be heard!

Anonymous said...
November 11, 2009 at 2:29 PM  

It's a shame that there has to be a debate on whether or not to cover millions of american people. Health care should be a right not a privilge. A government option should be there, since the insurance industry premiums our outrageous. The American people that's protesting the change should keep in mind, the insurance companies are there to make money. Their responsibilities aren't with the subscribers that they have, but to the shareholders. The government option is there for those who can't afford these overcharged premiums that the insurance companies charge. The poor and middle class also pays taxes, so it's not like its free. The President is trying to do something that will benefit every American. Remember that something can happen to you, you may lose your job, or have a health issue and in need of care. I'm for the government option and an overhaul of the health system. If Canada can give their people healthcare, why can't we.

Anonymous said...
November 30, 2009 at 5:14 PM  

i think if ur against abortion than thats ur disicion..dont have it but if u cant support it than the better choice is pro choice :)

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