Fall 2015 Articles, Social Issues

Support for Abortion Depends on How the Question is Asked

Abortion laws are controversial and have been for decades. Planned Parenthood (PP) in particular has recently come under intense scrutiny by Republicans. Several Republican led state governments have tried to defund PP and have enacted policies intended to make it harder for women to obtain an abortion. More tragically, on November 27, a gunman attacked citizens at a PP location in Colorado Springs, apparently referencing anti-abortion rhetoric espoused by several candidates seeking the Republican Party nomination to run for President.

Even though surveys indicate a significant majority of Americans say that abortion should be legal, opponents can point to some polling data that support their position. It appears that a subtle difference in question wording and response options affects how large of majority exists.

Abortion Viewpoints Depend on the Question Wording

Starting in 2013, we have polled State students about abortion. Different pollsters use different question wording and response options to measure attitudes about abortion. To examine how this might matter, we asked a question in two different ways. Following Quinnipiac University about half of students were, at random, asked, “Do you think abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases?” The other half was asked, like CBS/NY Times’ does, “Which statement is closest with your view, abortion should be generally available to those who want it, abortion should be available, but under stricter limits than we have now, or abortion should not be permitted.”

In the first version, a majority (63%) of students say that abortion should be legal. We arrive at that figure by combining legal “in most cases” with “in all cases.” Most striking, just 11% said abortion should “always” be illegal, a position sometimes attributed to Republican Presidential candidate, Marco Rubio. We also find that most students feel strongly about their opinion, whatever it is. For example, 98% of students that said abortion should always be illegal also reported feeling strongly about their opinion, but at least 73% of students feel strongly about any answer they gave.

closest view and opinion

Opinions look a little differently, though, based on the second version of the question. In contrast to the 11% who said it should never be legal, we now find 23% saying abortion “should never be permitted.” How should we should interpret the middle option of “available but with stricter limits?” On the one hand, by combining the middle answer option with generally available, we might say that 78% of students believe abortion should be legal, which is a larger share of the student population than our first question suggests. Yet, maybe it is better to combine the middle answer option with, “abortion should not be permitted,” in which case, just half support a woman’s right to an abortion, not 63%.legalilty of abortions and intensity

Gender Matters

Although more women at State support abortion rights, about half of males were also in favor depending on the question wording. In the first version, 57% of males and 69^ of females said abortions should be legal in most or all cases. Those percentages declined to 45% of males and 55% of females who said abortions should be generally available.

gender gap closest view

gender gap and legality

Party Identification

Examining the differences by students’ party identification led to predictable results. While 78% of Democrats were in favor of abortions being generally available, 50% of Independents and just 24% of Republicans said the same thing. Our results were similar for believing abortion should be legal in most or in all cases. Now, 87% of Democrats 63% of Independents, and only 33% of Republicans felt that way.

party ID and abortion legality party ID and viewpoint


Since 2013, the PackPoll has been asking about the legality of abortions, and a majority of students have supported a woman’s right to an abortion. Exactly how large that majority is, though, depends on how the question is asked, as this poll shows. In 2013, we also asked students if they believed abortion was “morally wrong.” Surprisingly, even those who labeled themselves as “pro-choice” were likely to say that having an abortion is morally wrong. Students appear to believe that abortions should be legal, but they also seem to believe that having one is immoral.


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