Abortion: new data, new controversy

yellowcrossbabyfeetIs the U.S. public moving towards a more conservative, or perhaps a less generally permissive, attitude towards legalized abortion? There's some really fascinating new information out from the Pew Research Center, suggesting such a shift. But not so fast, mes amis. As soon as the data arrived, so did the deconstructionists. I found reading this different pieces both helpful and troublesome -- some media outlets accepted the new information as solid evidence that a significant shift has occurred without question, and others immediately challenged its significance.

Read the Pew summary before you jump into the articles. Here's a fuller version. I found these opening paragraphs most helpful when viewing the article -- and again, found it odd that most of the stories didn't lead with what seem to be the most significant results.

Polls conducted in 2009 have found fewer Americans expressing support for abortion than in previous years. In Pew Research Center polls in 2007 and 2008, supporters of legal abortion clearly outnumbered opponents; now Americans are evenly divided on the question, and there have been modest increases in the numbers who favor reducing abortions or making them harder to obtain. Less support for abortion is evident among most demographic and political groups.

The latest Pew Research Center survey also reveals that the abortion debate has receded in importance, especially among liberals. At the same time, opposition to abortion has grown more firm among conservatives, who have become less supportive of finding a middle ground on the issue and more certain of the correctness of their own views on abortion.

So are we really seeing a big change, some general movement towards a more conservative stance, more polarization among white guys and the more observant or -- let's not get our knickers in a twist yet? Prominent among the skeptics is New York Times pro Laurie Goodstein.

For most of the last two decades, a clear majority of Americans has supported the right to abortion. A new poll, though, suggests that support for abortion may have declined, with the public almost evenly divided over the issue.

The apparent shift, which contradicts some other recent polls, appears in a poll by the Pew Research Center released on Thursday. A 2008 poll by Pew researchers had found that those in favor of keeping abortion legal outnumbered opponents, 54 percent to 40 percent. In the new Pew poll, the gap has narrowed: 47 percent of those surveyed said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 45 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases -- a difference within the poll's margin of sampling error.

Note Goodstein's use of the words "suggests", "apparent" and "contradicts some other recent polls." Goodstein goes on to look at data from some previous polls, that support her assertion that the data is "inconclusive." That's fair, although it is possible, given the ever-shifting sands of the health care debate and other hot-button issues, that indeed attitudes have shifted since last spring, when some of the previous polls were taken (note that even last spring Pew found a move towards more conservative attitudes towards both guns and abortion). I wish she'd done more analysis of the Pew data -- and her use of the word "complacent" to describe current liberal attitudes towards abortion seemed to imply that liberals better wake up and smell the coffee. Goodstein is right on about the sensitivity of questions on the issue of abortion.

Count "The Pollster" at the Washington Post among those who question the import of this new data. The writers do use a very recent Virginia poll to support their argument for restraint -- but it's also possible that the shift isn't occuring in Virginia, as swinging a state as it is. But take a look at Dave Cook over at the Christian Science Monitor website. He reports the data without question.

I really don't like the lede on the CNN.com story by Richard Allen Greene. I have tremendous respect for Pew, and Pew data, but is this really a "dramatic shift?" However, I was intrigued by some of the revealing quotes he gives readers later in the story -- particularly the one from N.O.W. President Terry O'Neill.

But Terry O'Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women, firmly rejects religious opposition to abortion.

"Abortion is a blessing when it is chosen freely by a woman who needs it. It is a blessing," she said, citing the Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School.

O'Neill has been in that position herself, she said.

"When I was in my early 20s, I thought I needed an abortion. I was escaping a very violent marriage that lasted about eight months," she said. "The young man I was married to exploded and severely battered me."

Wow. Does the language of "blessing" represent the religious left's (far left) new language on abortion? Readers, keep your eyes open.

So, how about some stories that don't lede with questions about the reliability of the data, but take a closer look at the results, get some quotes from analysts, not partisans, and then contrast apples and apples? Do you have to either buy the new results hook link and sinker, or question their importance without engaging them? Ah, the disappearing middle ground -- the Pew researchers may be unto something.

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