How to Interpret Polls on Abortion

By Joyce Arthur
Pro-Choice Press, Autumn/Winter 2002

It's misleading to try and gauge levels of pro-choice support by looking at various polls done over the years. Polls often come up with different results on the issue. Some examples of recent and past surveys highlight the quandary.

In late November, the National Post published the findings of their own poll that asked the question, "Should women have complete freedom on their decision to have an abortion?" Almost four of five Canadians, or 78%, said that women should have a completely free choice. The finding, part of a poll on freedom of the body, was cited as the latest indication of a steady rise in public support for abortion since the mid-1980s, when only about half the country supported legal and widely available abortion. That figure had apparently risen to 66% by 2000 when an Environics survey asked people if they agreed that "Every woman who wants to have an abortion should be able to have one." But an even earlier Environics poll in 1992 found that 79% of Canadians believe "Abortion is a medical decision that should rest with the woman in consultation with her physician."

In contrast to the above polls, a recent Leger Marketing survey sponsored by LifeCanada[1] asked respondents "At what point during human development should the law protect human life?" The results:

  • 37% favoured protection from conception on.
  • 13% wanted protection after three months gestation.
  • 6% wanted protection after six months.
  • 30% said there should be no legal protection until after birth.

How do we explain these conflicting results? The most important thing to remember is that polls are neither scientific nor objective—not even the best ones. Their results might indicate general trends, but they should not be relied on as accurate data.

Differences in polling results are caused by a variety of factors, such as who funds the poll, the sample size, what questions are asked, and their wording. Biased questions may lead the respondent to a desired answer. For example, if the phrase "human life" is used instead of, say, "embryos," more people will tend to say they want to protect the former than the latter. Virtually everyone supports "freedom" and "privacy" so a large majority of people will agree that women should have both. But if specific questions are asked about exactly when fetal life should be protected, women's so-called "complete freedom" to have abortions appears to take a sudden nosedive. (Similar results have been found in U.S. polls, and not just those funded by anti-choice groups.) It seems that people don't think through the implications—namely, that conferring fetal rights means restricting women's freedom and privacy. But the question we need to consider is: Are people really as pro-choice as we like to think? Or would most actually prefer to restrict abortion rights, at least after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy?

People are conflicted about abortion; it's a very emotional and difficult issue and polls reflect peoples' ambivalence towards it. Plus, misconceptions abound, thanks largely to anti-choice propaganda. The average person, while at least nominally pro-choice, tends to feel uncomfortable about abortion and often holds erroneous and uninformed beliefs about it. The most common myth is that women who have abortions are irresponsible or promiscuous. Some people lament abortion being "used as a form of birth control", wrongly presuming that abortion patients don't use contraception (most abortions result from failed contraception). Another assumption, usually unstated, is that women's natural and primary role is to have children, so abortions are both immoral and harmful to women—although perhaps a "necessary evil."

Polls don't measure or make allowances for these common fallacies, which spring from anti-choice and patriarchal beliefs. What's really needed is a properly controlled scientific study that captures peoples' attitudes about abortion in a way that doesn't rely on their expressed opinions—for example, a psychological study that looks at how people behave spontaneously in a certain abortion-related situation.

Such a study could clarify the actual level of pro-choice support, as well as the degree to which people's pro-choice views are "reluctant," and why. Regardless, it's clear that one of the most important jobs of the pro-choice movement is to continue educating the public about the fundamental morality and necessity of abortion rights. They signify women's worth and equality, stronger families with healthier, happier children, and a more civilized society.


[1] LifeCanada is a new anti-choice group that represents 85 organizations across Canada. Their poll was conducted in October.