Home / General / Douthat and Public Opinion on Abortion

Douthat and Public Opinion on Abortion


As you might expect, Ross Douthat is unhappy about the backlash against the Komen Foundation’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood. Much of his argument consists of assertions of media bias that are difficult to respond to, since he cites no examples (let alone systematic evidence.) As Sarah Kilff notes, there’s no reason to believe it was true in this specific case. And while it’s plausible to assume that the typical journalist is more socially liberal (as well as more economically conservative) than meidan public opinion in general, I would argue that this is actually less true with respect to abortion than with other kinds of social issues. Punditry dismissing the importance of Roe v. Wade and reproductive rights, in particular, is so common as to be banal.

In addition to this argument about media bias, Douthat also cites public opinion data sowing about abortion, focusing in particular on “as many Americans described themselves as pro-life as called themselves pro-choice” and that a “combined 58 percent of Americans stated that abortion should either be “illegal in all circumstances” or “legal in only a few circumstances.” John Sides objects to Douthat’s cherry-picking:

As I’ve argued before, one cannot divide the public into “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps based on the kinds of survey questions he cites. These questions fail to capture the true complexity and the ambivalence in most Americans’ attitudes toward abortion. Most Americans approve of abortion in certain cases and oppose it in others. Juxtapose, for example, abortion in the case of rape with abortion for the purpose of sex selection. At best, a small minority—perhaps 20% but likely smaller—would approve of or oppose abortion in every case.

While I agree that Douthat’s use of public opinion is tendentious, I think the problems are different and worse than the ones that John cites. The most obvious problem, if you click through to the poll Douthat is discussing, Douthat first combines two categories to create what looks like an anti-choice majority, adding the 20% who want abortion banned to the larger number who believe that abortion should only be legal under “a few circumstances.” Since these “circumstances” aren’t specified and presumably mean many different things to different people, to combine the two numbers is fundamentally misleading.

This brings us to a larger problem with this kind of conflation, which advances the interests of the minority who want abortion to be criminalized. I agree with John that many people have an intuitive sense that abortion should be legal for the “right reasons” but not for the “wrong reasons,” which is reflected in the public opinion data that shows a great deal of support for abortion only being legal in certain unspecified circumstances. The problem is that these distinctions are completely irrelevant to public policy. There’s no way of crafting abortion laws that only makes abortions women obtain for certain reasons illegal. “Centrist” abortion regulations such as waiting periods or requiring the approval of panels of doctors don’t ensure that women will get abortion for the “right reasons”; they just produce contexts in which affluent women can obtain abortions for any reason and poor women — especially those outside major urban centers — find it difficult or impossible to obtain abortions for any reason.

I don’t think “women should only be able to obtain abortions if Ross Douthat approves of their reasons for doing so” is a normatively attractive basis for abortion policy either, but whatever one thinks of the argument it’s irrelevant to making abortion policy. The public may strongly oppose abortion for sex selection, but since there’s no way of specifically targeting such abortions with an enforceable law it’s neither here not there. Getting these kinds of selective moral judgments mixed up with abortion policy confuses matters in ways that work to the benefit supporters of abortion criminalization. A fair fight between the actual policy alternatives would strongly favor pro-choicers, as the public’s overwhelming support for Roe v. Wade reflects.

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  • Njorl

    I don’t think I found one mention of Komen’s actions in any mainstream media until after they caved. Is Douthat complaining of media bias in at feminist blogs? This was a grassroots response by people who were offended. That can happen when you set out to offend people.

  • ploeg

    I had the understanding that the reason why Komen caved so quickly was that the local Komen affiliates raised such a firestorm about it. It’s one thing if a decision might cause a hit in fundraising in the indeterminate future, it’s another when you catch hell from the uncompensated and undercompensated people who actually run the place. And that would seem to have nae to do with media coverage.

  • Mudge

    If someone can tolerate the idea of abortion under any circumstances, they cannot be pro-life in its currently zealotous form. The world of the right is black or white, devoid of shades of gray. Pro-choice as a position has many different details in points of view.

    • DrDick

      This is simply another example of the success of conservative branding operations. More Americans identify as conservative than liberal, though the vast majority support left liberal policies. “Pro-life” sounds so much better than “pro-abortion” (fwiw, I do not know anyone who is actually “pro-abortion”, even though I support the right to an abortion under almost any circumstances). Progressives need to get much better at this branding, especially labeling conservatives with the actual consequences of their policies.

      • I’m pro-abortion. Not only does it sound awesome and contrarian it’s also almost certainly the right position: I think that there are (evidently) lots of circumstances where abortion is a very good to excellent choice. I’m glad that it’s such a safe and (comparatively) easy procedure. I fully support more research into making it even safer and easier (safe OTC abortifacients would be a boon).

        I rather suspect that many of the millions of women who chose abortions are very pro-their-abortion.

        I’m obviously not pro-forced abortion, or pro-abortion in any other silly sense. But I’m pro-chemotherapy as well, without any taint of silliness.

        • DrDick

          I don’t disagree with what you are saying, but I still would not call myself pro-abortion, anymore than I would call myself pro-triple bypass surgery, even though that saved my father’s life twice. I fully support the ready availability of both procedure for all who need/want them, but sincerely wish neither was ever necessary.

          • I think describing these things as “pro” depends on there being an “anti”. There are people that are anti-chemotherapy per se (KILLER CHEMICALS!!!! use safe homeopathic remedies). Similarly there are people who are anti-abortion per se. I find it very natural to say that my contrary position is “pro”.

            I mean, I don’t think that either abortion or chemotherapy are intrinsic goods, but I don’t see that being pro-something means that you have to regard it as an instrumental good.

            One reason to reclaim “pro-abortion” is that lines like “I don’t know anyone who is pro-abortion” suggests that there is some moral squishiness about (e.g., first trimester, to be unambiguous) abortion. I don’t think there is. It’s not just I think women should have the right to do wrong (though I do); I think that abortion is without a doubt the right and good choice.

            For example, if a women who does not want a kid now (or ever) has a contraceptive failure (e.g., the condom broke), then an abortion is a great choice. I don’t think, “Oh, it’s too bad she didn’t abstain, though I support her right to abort”. I think, “Whoa! Abortion is great! It helps with these cases!”

            I’m pro-contraception too. Contraception is hugely awesome. Fully family planning control is superduper awesome and, for the forseeable future, abortion is a critical part of that mix. Hence, I’m pro-abortion.

            In any case, you can’t say that you don’t know of someone who is pro-abortion anymore :)

  • JohnR

    “Common knowledge” goes unexamined and ideological assumptions are accepted as fundamental facts. Building on this, one decides the conclusion and then finds something, anything, to support it, assuming that if one such example can be found, much more must be there hidden, if necessary, by the Enemies who are constantly working to undermine the True Faith (which may be religious or political; the distinction is more semantic than real).
    It’s all GIGO, but most people are not programmers.

    • JohnR

      Oh, and because I forgot to add it – Douthat is an idiot; he’s a “Thinking Man’s Megan McArdle” (assuming that the Thinking Man is Newt Gingrich).

      • c u n d gulag


      • DrDick

        In other words, for all values of “thinking” that do not involve any actual knowledge or thought.

  • avoidswork

    Every time Douthat writes from his white-bread, Catholic POV I want to crawl through the interubes and take him out (metaphorically speaking). It is so…douchey…the way he espouses on issues of women’s rights in that lovely, condescending tone. How the f*ck this man made it to the NYT Opinion page is beyond me, but when you also have David F*cking Brooks (h/t to Driftglass for the nomenclature) and the taint of Judith Miller, I guess nothing should be shocking.

    I think my favorite part is the airquotes he uses a la “politicized” – while completely ignoring ALL of the other grants dispersed by SGK with recipients under actual federal investigation.

    In all the white-man patriarchy talk about this issue they forget that it was SGK who fed us a line of BS. We didn’t make it up.

    Now they are backtracking from a POV of how SGK can donate to what it wants (yes, it absolutely can. so can i. and guess which of PP and SGK is getting my $$) and how so many people are against PP. Well, SGK wasn’t until a few “seconds” ago since it’s not as though PP has ever changed its mission statement.

    Yes, Douchat, the media has blinders. You just don’t realize it is actually describing you and your ilk.

    • c u n d gulag

      Well, after hiring Bill Kristol blew-up in their faces, they had to find another Conservative to take his place, because, you know… Uhm… You know…

      Well, just BECAUSE, that’s why!

      I believe the want-ad said:
      “Always-wrong Conservative moral scold needed for NY Times Op-ed page.
      Preferably, you’re a young douchebag, not an ancient one – because we just saw how that went.
      Also too – a strong aversion to sex, women and their icky places, desired.
      Also three – must hate Liberals. But that should go without saying.”

      • c u n d gulag

        Because, heaven forbid the NY Times hires ANOTHER Liberal columnist at the LIBERAL NY Times.

        I remain thankful, at least, that they drew the line at Malkin, Coulter, and Son of Erick.

        • BigHank53

          Douthat’s copy doesn’t arrive with bodily fluids spattered on it, which makes it preferable to that of Malkin, Coulter, and Erickson.

          • JohnR

            Oh, for goodness’ sake – I was eating lunch!

        • witless chum

          Remember how conservatives used to complain that the Times was THE LIBERAL MEDIA but stopped after Ross Douthat was hired?

    • herr doktor bimler

      How the f*ck this man made it to the NYT Opinion page is beyond me

      You answered that yourself; “he espouses on issues of women’s rights in that lovely, condescending tone”.

  • cpinva

    more to the point: a woman’s decisions about her health care have no business whatever being subject to either public opinion, or legislative fiat, any more than your civil rights are, and shouldn’t be. when mr. douthat (or anyone else) is officially proclaimed the highest deity, then he might have that authority.

    i don’t see this happening any time soon.

  • Conservatives like Douthat are the ones who bring abortion into EVERYTHING. Gallup polls taken every year since 1977 indicate that an overwhelming majority of Americans agree that abortion should be available in some instances. There is also a poll that shows people almost evenly split in describing themselves as ‘pro-choice” or “pro-life.” It would seem to indicate that some “pro-life” people, in fact, support abortion in limited situations. So exactly who is he — and the other hardliners — speaking for? Why is a minority opinion getting so much hype? Why are these people absolutely obsessed with the issue? It’s perverse.

    Secondly, I submit that the Komen debacle was not about abortion at all. It was about the politicization of something that should be free of politics. Further it came in the wake of relentless attempts (contraception restraints and Personhood amendments, for example) to restrict women’s most fundamental right.

    People just said “enough.” No one (contrary to Fox et al) said Komen as a private institution can’t give to whom they want. We just said, if you do, we will give to someone else.

    Thanks for a post that is far more insightful on this than any of the news “experts” I’ve endured.

  • I would really like the left to start to frame this as a question of family autonomy. Asking questions about restrictions on abortions invites limitations.

    Asking questions about whether a family should have an option to add to their family if they want to, or decline to if they feel they should not, would probably overwhelmingly receive American approval.

    • avoidswork

      Sadly, it doesn’t matter how we frame it.

      You, I and the other Serious and Rationals understand how very complex, very personal and very gray this entire discussion is. That it is about an individual’s right/relevance as a sentient being. That it is about a family’s right to decide what is best for their family.

      The Irrationals will always default to “murder of millions of babies!” And the UnSerious will always make women out to be dirty girls who want sex w/o consequence**.

      (** regardless of whether that term encompasses a new life that needs to be nurtured, loved, and have basic needs met)

      • Murc

        And the UnSerious will always make women out to be dirty girls who want sex w/o consequence**.

        I am a proud supporter of sex without (adverse) consequences.

        Sex is AWESOME. Things that let people experience more of it without a downside are equally awesome.

        • Especially with dirty girls*

          * or partner of your preferred gender, of course.

      • See, that’s my point: we’ve ceded the “moral ground” to people who scream bloody murder, literally. We need a calming trope to throw back in their faces and make them sound irrational to the tens of millions of people who sit on a fence and say “well, killing babies is bad, but I don’t know….no abortions? Ever?”

  • Jesse Levine

    You can’t fight this fight on the grounds of “who’s ahead in the polls”. Single issue zealots with enormous resources and the support of other reactionary political and cultural groups have the ability to influence public opinion in the long term. I believe (no empirical evidence handy)that has happened gradually over thepast 20 years. Abortion is either a woman’sright or it isn’t. What may appear centrist to the pro choice movement or the uninvolved is just a little bit of surrender in the eyes of the forced birth crowd. There is no middle ground, especially when you have a Supreme Court delberately undermining it’s prior seminal decision on the issue.

  • CJColucci

    Scott hits the nail on the head. I’ve always thought it would improve public debate if polls focused more on how people view abortion policy and less on how they view abortion itself. Many people who know me know what I think about abortion policy. Literally no one knows what I think of abortion itself. (I recently learned that my wife had a completely wrong view of what I thought about it.) And I mean literally no one. I don’t know myself what I think of it in detail. I have never been and will never be pregnant. I have never been pregnant and, as a matter of sad medical fact, I will never be responsible for a pregnancy, planned or otherwise. I can play with the arguments with the best of them — being a lawyer, after all — but I’ve never had to take the issue morally seriously and never will. I leave that to people with skin in the game, for whom it is a live issue. I do have some views about circumstances in which I would react to someone’s getting an abortion with an “Ick!,” but you can’t make a policy out of that.

  • pete

    A “few circumstances” in practice frequently means, “me and my close kin” (as beautifully exemplified recently by a candidate for President), though the rationalization process is often entertaining. The candidate was asked about his daughter or granddaughter and ended up stumbling down a very unfortunate, vaguely “honest,” little rabbit hole.

  • wengler

    Anti abortion forces are one of the few homegrown terrorist groups in the last 30 years. Good to see that just like terrorism by them A-rabs, both the left and the right have made common cause to see that our law and way of life will not be changed by violent force.

    Oh wait, this didn’t happen?

  • herr doktor bimler

    Any public policy on abortion must allow for situations like Republican politicians and their wives arranging for induced labour of an unviable fetus.

  • David M. Nieporent

    Shorter Scott: A stupid poll question that people don’t understand, but which happens to support my Abortions-For-All ideology, is a better measure of what policies people support than a poll question that actually asks what policies people support.

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