By James D. Agresti
January 18, 2013
With the 40-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade just days away, media outlets are trumpeting a Pew Research poll showing broad support for the court’s decision, which overturned the laws of 30 states that barred abortions except to save the life of the mother. However, the poll misrepresents Roe v. Wade in a way that manipulates public opinion in favor of the ruling.
The flaw underlying this Pew poll is revealed by a 2002 Gallup analysis of 146 survey questions about abortion posed by 18 different polling organizations. Gallup found that public opinion was generally “consistent across differently worded questions. But in a few cases, particularly with respect to Roe v. Wade, the responses vary widely, depending on the information provided in the question.” Lydia Saad, the senior Gallup poll editor who authored the analysis, explained:
Most survey questions about Roe v. Wade provide the respondent with information about the case, and these details appear to have a major impact on the answers. … If Roe v. Wade is presented only as legalizing abortion in the first three months, support for the decision is much higher than if it is characterized as making abortion legal throughout pregnancy or for any reason.
The designers of the Pew poll boost support for the ruling by telling respondents: “In 1973 the Roe versus Wade decision established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Would you like to see the Supreme Court completely overturn its Roe versus Wade decision, or not?”
That language is misleading because Roe v. Wade, along with its accompanying ruling, Doe v. Bolton, mandate that abortion be legal up until the point of birth if any one physician willing to perform an abortion says it is needed for “the preservation of the … health of the mother.” Furthermore, Roe cites specific examples of what may be considered harmful to a mother’s health, such as the “stigma of unwed motherhood,” the work of “child care,” and “the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child.”
Likewise, Doe v. Bolton, which was issued by the Supreme Court on the same day as Roe v. Wade with an order that they “are to be read together,” states that “the medical judgment may be exercised in the light of all factors — physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age — relevant to the well-being of the patient. All these factors may relate to health.”
Thus, “health,” as defined by Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, provides broad leeway to perform abortions throughout pregnancy. In Roe v. Wade, the majority wrote that their ruling does not permit abortions “at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason” a woman chooses, but they provided no example of a circumstance where abortion could be prohibited. The implications of this are evident in the words of noted abortionist Warren Hern, author of “the nation’s most widely used textbook on abortion standards and procedures.” In 1997, Hern explained: “I say every pregnancy carries a risk of death,” and “I will certify that any pregnancy is a threat to a woman’s life and could cause grievous injury to her physical health.”
Nonetheless, some states have passed laws that restrict late-term abortions without the broad health exceptions required under Roe v. Wade. Moreover, a 2011 New York Times op-ed explains that abortion proponents have generally shied away from challenging these laws in court because the laws are popular with the public and because of fear that the Supreme Court may strike down Roe. A number of Democratic Senators and Representatives (including Barack Obama) have sponsored federal legislation to overturn all local, state and federal laws that defy Roe v. Wade, but the bills were not voted upon.
Regardless of what current abortion laws may be, this new Pew poll significantly misrepresents Roe v. Wade, thereby manufacturing support for it. On top of this, major medias outlets such as the Associated Press, CNN, Reuters, Politico, and the Los Angeles Times are broadcasting these misleading poll results to their audiences. Perhaps most critically, in the same articles, some of these media outlets explicitly spread the falsehood that Roe merely permits abortions for the first three months of pregnancy.