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Douthat and Public Opinion on Abortion

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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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