Online tool helps make sense of the great American middle in abortion debate

Ask Americans whether all human life, including that of the unborn, should be protected, and more than three-quarters will say that is a very or fairly convincing argument for limiting access to abortion.

Ask Americans if they want to make it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, and only a little more than a third will say yes.

As the nation again prepares to mark the Jan. 22 anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision greatly expanding legal rights to abortion, there will be no shortage of survey results advocates on both sides will use to claim a national mandate for their position.

It can be difficult, however, for many Americans to analyze polling results that seem to come to contradictory conclusions when framed by policy advocates, politicians and partisan media commentators.

Fortunately, scholars, journalists and the general public have a new tool to determine what trends are emerging as a national consensus on controversial topics such as abortion, homosexuality and the mix of science and religion, and which findings may be the results of loaded questions or a lack of context.

The Measurement Wizard provided by the Association of Religion Data Archives allows users to browse available ARDA data from some 7,700 questions asked in more than 750 major national and international surveys to see for themselves the major findings on hot-topic issues in religion and public life.

On the single issue of attitudes about abortion, the Measurement Wizard provides results from 442 questions from nearly 100 surveys. The Wizard also breaks down results into categories such as under what circumstances people approve or disapprove of abortion. As with all ARDA data, viewers are able to quickly access survey summaries to determine how the survey was conducted and the study funders.

“We’re trying to figure out what we really know about social phenomena and how … what we think we know about social issues really depends on the way you ask the question,” said Christopher Bader, a sociology professor at Chapman University and associate director of ARDA.

So what do Americans think about abortion?

There are no simple answers, other than to say there is no clear majority at either of the extremes that seem so dominant in public policy debates.

In a May 2013 Gallup Poll, more than half of Americans said abortions should be legal only under certain circumstances, with 26 percent saying it should be legal under all circumstances and 20 percent saying it should be illegal under all circumstances.

General Social Survey data over the years have shown respondents favoring legal abortion if there is a strong chance of a serious defect in the baby, the woman’s health is seriously endangered or if the pregnancy is the result of rape.

However, more Americans generally favor rather than oppose legal restrictions on abortion if the woman is not married and does not want to marry the man, if the woman is married and does not want any more children or if the abortion is for financial reasons.

The polls in the ARDA archive also indicate Americans are concerned about allowing late-term abortions and are in favor of requirements for parental consent if the person seeking an abortion is under age 18.

“When you look at the abortion items, it’s not so much that you can divide the world into pro-life or pro-choice camps,” Bader said. “It’s a nuanced question.”

It is not just the abortion issue that requires careful interpretation.

In creating the Measurement Wizard to allow individuals to quickly compare and analyze survey findings on 114 topics, ARDA researchers found several examples of how survey questions sometimes fall short of reflecting the complexity of Americans’ beliefs.

For example, in analyzing survey questions on beliefs about human origins, you could make the case Americans are evenly divided into creationists or evolutionists by looking only at questions that ask whether human beings developed from earlier species of animals or were the result of divine intervention.

But not all Americans can be forced into an either-or box, Bader said. Many are comfortable with scientific findings, but also believe God plays a role in history, and that human beings have a special relationship with the divine.

Similarly, it may be misleading to separate Americans into categories of pro-life or pro-choice.

Those on the extremes of the abortion debate have long portrayed political battles as a zero-sum game: Even the slightest giving of ground portended a slippery slope that could plunge the nation into either abandoning all rights to abortion or giving up any protections for life inside the womb.

But just how carefully many Americans struggle with the moral, ethical and public policy dimensions of the issue can be seen in the wealth of research revealing a range of responses reflecting concerns for competing moral claims in the abortion debate.

One could even say the majority of Americans are in many ways pro-life and pro-choice.

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