Measuring abortion absolutism

The American National Elections Studies (ANES) has measured abortion attitudes since 1980 with an item that dramatically inflates the percentage of pro-choice absolutists:

There has been some discussion about abortion during
recent years. Which one of the opinions on this page best agrees with your view? You can just tell me the number of the opinion you choose.
1. By law, abortion should never be permitted.
2. The law should permit abortion only in case of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger.
3. The law should permit abortion for reasons other than rape, incest, or danger to the woman’s life, but only after the need for the abortion has been clearly established.
4. By law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice.
5. Other {SPECIFY}

 

In a book chapter of Improving Public Opinion Surveys: Interdisciplinary Innovation and the American National Election Studies, Heather Marie Rice and I discussed this measure and results from a new abortion attitudes measure piloted in 2006 and included on the 2008 ANES Time Series Study. The 2006 and 2008 studies did not ask any respondents both abortion attitudes measures, but the 2012 study did. This post presents data from the 2012 study describing how persons selecting an absolute abortion policy option responded when asked about policies for specific abortion conditions.

Based on the five-part item above, and removing from the analysis the five persons who provided an Other response, 44 percent of the population agreed that “[b]y law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice.” The figure below indicates how these pro-choice absolutists later responded to items about specific abortion conditions.

Red bars indicate the percentage of persons who agreed on the 2012 pre-election survey that “[b]y law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice” but reported opposition to abortion for the corresponding condition in the 2012 post-election survey.

2012abortionANESprochoice4

Sixty-six percent of these pro-choice absolutists on the 2012 pre-election survey later reported opposition to abortion if the reason for the abortion is that the child will not be the sex that the pregnant woman wanted. Eighteen percent of these pro-choice absolutists later reported neither favoring nor opposing abortion for that reason, and 16 percent later reported favoring abortion for that reason. Remember that this 16 percent favoring abortion for reasons of fetal sex selection is 16 percent of the pro-choice absolutist subsample.

In the overall US population, only 8 percent favor abortion for fetal sex selection; this 8 percent is a more accurate estimate of the percent of pro-choice absolutists in the population than the 44 percent estimate from the five-part item.

Based on the five-part item above, and removing from the analysis the five persons who provided an Other response, 12 percent of the population thinks that “[b]y law, abortion should never be permitted.” The figure below indicates how these pro-life absolutists later  responded to items about specific abortion conditions.

Green bars indicate the percentage of persons who agreed on the 2012 pre-election survey that “[b]y law, abortion should never be permitted” but reported support for abortion for the corresponding condition in the 2012 post-election survey.

2012abortionANESprolife4

Twenty-nine percent of these pro-life absolutists on the 2012 pre-election survey later reported support for abortion if the reason for the abortion is that the woman might die from the pregnancy. Twenty-nine percent of these pro-choice absolutists later reported neither favoring nor opposing abortion for that reason, and 42 percent later reported opposing abortion for that reason. Remember that this 42 percent opposing abortion for reasons of protecting the pregnant woman’s life is 42 percent of the pro-life absolutist subsample.

In the overall US population, only 11 percent oppose abortion if the woman might die from the pregnancy; this 11 percent is a more accurate estimate of the percent of pro-life absolutists in the US population than the 12 percent estimate from the five-part item.

There is a negligible difference in measured pro-life absolutism between the two methods, but the five-part item inflated pro-choice absolutism by a factor of 5. Our book chapter suggested that this inflated pro-choice absolutism might result because the typical person considers abortion in terms of the hard cases, especially since the five-part item mentions only the hard cases of rape, incest, and danger to the pregnant woman’s life.

Notes

1. The percent of absolutists is slightly smaller if absolutism is measured as supporting or opposing abortion in each listed condition.

2. The percent of pro-life absolutists is likely overestimated in the “fatal” abortion condition item because the item asks about abortion if “staying pregnant could cause the woman to die”; presumably, there would be less opposition to abortion if the item stated with certainty that staying pregnant would cause the woman to die.

3. Data presented above are for persons who answered the five-part abortion item on the 2012 ANES pre-election survey and answered at least one abortion condition item on the 2012 ANES post-election survey. Don’t know and refusal responses were listwise deleted for each cross-tabulation. Data were weighted with the Stata command svyset [pweight=weight_full], strata(strata_full); weighted cross-tabulations were calculated with the command svy: tabulate X Y if Y==Z, where X is the abortion condition item, Y is the five-part abortion item, and Z is one of the absolute policy options on the five-part item.

4. Here is the text for each abortion condition item that appeared on the 2012 ANES Time Series post-election survey:

[First,/Next,] do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose abortion being legal if:
* staying pregnant could cause the woman to die
* the pregnancy was caused by the woman being raped
* the fetus will be born with a serious birth defect
* the pregnancy was caused by the woman having sex with a blood relative
* staying pregnant would hurt the woman’s health but is very unlikely to cause her to die
* having the child would be extremely difficult for the woman financially
* the child will not be the sex the woman wants it to be

There was also a general item on the post-election survey:

Next, do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose abortion being legal if the woman chooses to have one?

5. Follow-up items to the post-election survey abortion items asked respondents to indicate intensity of preference, such as favor a great deal, favor moderately, or favor a little. These follow-up items were not included in the above analysis.

6. There were more than 5000 respondents for the pre-election and post-election surveys.

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