A Wall Street Journal/NORC (WSJ) survey found that 68% of Americans believe that Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, should not be overturned. Yet a Rasmussen survey of American voters found that only 5% believe abortion should be legal in all cases, with no restrictions whatsoever. How to explain the apparent contradiction?
The Rasmussen survey was limited to registered voters; the WSJ poll was not. But that alone would hardly account for what appears to be a huge difference. There is something else going on that explains the differing outcomes.
Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center and Gallup come to the same conclusion as the WSJ poll on the issue of public support for Roe: they all conclude that most Americans, while supporting restrictions, do not want Roe overturned. Their singular failure is in assuming that most Americans know what Roe allows: as interpreted by the courts, it allows for abortion-on-demand. That would surely come as a surprise to most.
Virtually every survey that asks about restrictions, including those by WSJ, Pew, and Gallup, finds that the vast majority of Americans want them. This clearly put them at odds with what Roe permits, thus undercutting the narrative that most Americans do not want Roe overturned.
Similarly, surveys that do not inform respondents that overturning Roe would not ban all abortions are dishonest. This matters gravely because the conventional wisdom assumes that overturning Roe would do exactly that. In fact, if Roe were overturned, each state's legislature would decide what the terms should be.
The value of the Rasmussen survey is that it is not conditioned on the perspective of respondents regarding the provisions of Roe. "In aggregate, when asked about specific restrictions, such as notifying the father, notifying the parents of a teenager, and waiting periods," 5% say that "No restrictions should be placed on abortion."
The findings of the Rasmussen survey should prompt other survey houses to reconsider the wording of their questions. Questions that presume an accurate understanding of the issue are bound to provide an inaccurate picture, which further feeds misperceptions.
Survey research can be a great way of judging the pulse of the nation. This assumes, however, that it is done in an unbiased manner.
Bill Donohue is president and CEO of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the nation's largest Catholic civil rights organization. He was awarded his Ph.D. in sociology from New York University and is the author of nine books and many articles.