What the latest abortion polls really mean

Updated
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, center, holds up two fingers to signal a no vote as the session where they tried to filibuster an abortion bill draws to a...
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, center, holds up two fingers to signal a no vote as the session where they tried to filibuster an abortion bill draws to a...
Eric Gay/AP

Conservatives have been triumphantly pointing to two new polls–one commissioned by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, another by ABC News and the Washington Post, showing either a plurality or majority of Americans supporting 20 week abortion bans–as proof that Wendy Davis’ heralded Texas filibuster was out of step with the country. Or, as The Examiner’s Tim Carney put it on Twitter, they’re “#NotStandingWithWendy.” Even before these numbers were released, Marco Rubio, who recently reiterated his desire to sponsor a 20-week ban in the Senate to Politico, said that Democrats “love to cite polls all the time–and, well, I don’t live by polls–but polls indicate that the vast majority of Americans believe that after 20 weeks, abortion should be limited.”

Does that mean that the GOP will overcome Democrats’ “war on women” rhetoric, which helped win the last national election? Nope.

For one thing, Davis was protesting an omnibus abortion bill that also included provisions its own supporters bragged would shut down the majority of Texas’ abortion clinics, among other restrictions. The ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 54% of Americans oppose those.

But more broadly, the polls tell us nothing anyone who has been watching this issue closely didn’t already know. When you ask Americans if they want abortion to be mostly legal, a majority say they do, though “mostly” is an undefined concept. When you ask Americans if they support later abortion, whether that’s defined as the second trimester, the third, or the arbitrary 20-week guideline currently in vogue, many will say they don’t. (Whether that would change if respondents heard about the particular life circumstances of someone needing an abortion after 20 weeks–a teenager raised on abstinence-only education who didn’t know she was pregnant, a single mother who couldn’t afford or couldn’t access an earlier abortion, a wanted pregnancy with a diagnosis of grave fetal abnormality–well, I’ve never seen a large-sample poll like that in years of reporting on this.)

Indeed, the commentary on the ABC News/Washington Post poll notes that the basic numbers–55% of Americans saying abortion “should be legal in all or most cases,” 41% saying it should be “entirely or mostly illegal”–map with “their long term averages… in more than 30 ABC/Post polls since 1995.”

In short, very few minds have been changed on abortion in decades of attempts to revoke women’s access to it. The elected officials’ political struggle is over who gets the rep for being “extreme.” Republicans lost that skirmish last year in the presidential election and a handful of Senate races, because throwing around the word slut and opposing the expansion of contraceptive access registered as extreme with enough voters. Hence the sudden popularity of 20-week bans. They affect only 1.5% of abortions (per the Guttmacher statistics), which doesn’t do much for those who would like to ban them entirely, but they seemingly force Democrats to defend an unpopular position.

But here are the limits of that strategy. Just because Americans don’t like abortion doesn’t mean they want legislators to focus on banning it. Even if Rubio can somehow force Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring his bill to the floor (unlikely), it has to pass the Senate (unlikelier) and the president has already threatened to veto it. And such bans have thrice been found unconstitutional by federal courts, an inconvenient fact as Rubio blames the delay in introducing the bill on an internal dispute over which part of the Constitution enables it. They are an exercise in futility.

At the same time, Democrats and pro-choice leaders can point to the fact that even if you’re personally uncomfortable with later abortion, such bills are a stalking horse for a broader agenda of limiting women’s reproductive choices, from birth control to early abortion. Just this week, a judge blocked a six-week abortion ban passed by North Dakota. They also can, and have, argued that this agenda speaks to a deeper misogyny underlying such laws–a case that gets strengthened every time manifold Republican legislators open their mouths.

The Democrats’ message of GOP overreach seems to have worked: in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, a majority of respondents said “they are more concerned about the GOP going too far to promote a conservative social agenda than about Democrats pushing a liberal one. Fifty-two percent say they are concerned Republicans will go too far on social issues like abortion and gay rights, versus 43 percent who aren’t concerned.”

When it comes to restrictions that will actually pass and have an impact on real people’s lives–as in, those on the state level–Republicans have mostly benefited from solid control of statehouses and the fact that people weren’t paying attention to the big picture. Thanks to the resurgence of grassroots activism and attention-grabbing feats like that of Wendy Davis, the second part is no longer true.

What the latest abortion polls really mean

Updated