Ross Douthat’s Blinders on Abortion

In his column yesterday, Times columnist Ross Douthat accuses the media of being biased toward a pro-choice position, a bias he claims has tilted their coverage of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation controversy. That, he suggests, shows just how out of touch the media is from the average American on abortion.

For openers, Douthat writes:

In the most recent Gallup poll on abortion, as many Americans described themselves as pro-life as called themselves pro-choice. A combined 58 percent of Americans stated that abortion should either be “illegal in all circumstances” or “legal in only a few circumstances.” These results do not vary appreciably by gender: in the first Gallup poll to show a slight pro-life majority, conducted in May 2009, half of American women described themselves as pro-life.

The Gallup data, though, is not unassailable, and Douthat overlooks a different and critical demographic distinction, between older and younger Americans.

On the overall numbers, Douthat links to a July 2011 report from Gallup which showed 47% of respondents considered themselves pro-life, and 47% pro-choice. But as the report he cited also shows, these numbers fluctuated slightly in a two month period; in May 2011 Gallup reported that “Americans are closely divided between those calling themselves ‘pro-choice’ and those who are ‘pro-life,’ now 49% and 45%, respectively, in Gallup’s 2011 update on U.S. abortion attitudes. This is similar to a year ago, when 45% were ‘pro-choice’ and 47% ‘pro-life.’ However, it is the first time since 2008 that the ‘pro-choice’ position has had the numerical advantage on this Gallup trend.” (emphasis added). Douthat cites the figure from two months later, but the fluctuations in the Gallup data on pro-choice/pro-life make it difficult to draw his conclusion from it.

Other polling indicates that these labels are complicated and do not fully or accurately capture respondents’ beliefs on abortion. For example, last year the Public Religion Research Institute conducted a poll which found “The binary ‘pro-choice’/’pro-life’ labels do not reflect the complexity of Americans’ views on abortion” and “seven-in-ten Americans say the term ‘pro-choice’ describes them somewhat or very well, and nearly two-thirds simultaneously say the term ‘pro-life’ describes them somewhat or very well. This overlapping identity is present in virtually every demographic group.” 

On age disparities, the May 2011 Gallup report concluded, “Americans’ views on abortion held fairly steady over the past year, with the public still sharply divided over the ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ labels. Nevertheless, majorities of Americans indicate some reluctance about abortion on both moral and legal grounds. This is seen most strongly among Republicans and older Americans.” (emphasis added). PRRI, on the other hand, found “A solid majority of Americans say abortion should be legal in all (19%) or most (37%) cases, compared to 4-in-10 who say it should be illegal in all (14%) or most (26%) cases.” PRRI also found that millenials are less likely than the rest of the population to consider abortion a sin, and more likely to say abortion should be made available in their communities by medical professionals.

Douthat complains that Planned Parenthood supporters tout its non-abortion services to persuade the public it is a good organization, overshadowing a fact he thinks Planned Parenthood should be ashamed of: the number of abortions it performs. But a look at some of the polling other than Gallup’s would suggest that majority of millenials—people of an age most likely to require such services—would want a Planned Parenthood affiliate in their communities, not in spite of the fact that Planned Parenthood performs abortions, but because of it.