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For Whom the Poll Tolls | The Nation

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For Whom the Poll Tolls

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Pro-life women shift to majority, trumpets the Washington Times. Other concerns come in "way ahead of preserving abortion rights," USA Today declares. "Progress and Perils," the latest poll commissioned by Faye Wattleton's Center for the Advancement of Women (CAW), had social conservatives dancing in the streets, and no wonder: Fifty-one percent of women, it claims, now favor banning abortion completely or restricting it to cases of rape, incest or to save a woman's life. Only 41 percent of women think abortion rights should be "a top priority" of the women's movement--and only 3 percent think it should be the top priority. That Wattleton, former head of Planned Parenthood and icon of feminism, should be the bearer of this news is the icing on the anti-choice cake.

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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They aren’t very interested in compromise, or birth control—or, for that matter, in engaging much with pro-choicers.

The abortion responses have predictably attracted most of the media attention, but social conservatives shouldn't break out the champagne. The poll shows strong support for a wide variety of feminist goals. If I were the Independent Women's Forum, I wouldn't be thrilled to learn that large majorities of women nominated as "a top priority" for the women's movement domestic violence and sexual assault (92 percent), equal pay for equal work (90 percent), childcare (85 percent), women's healthcare (83 percent), sexual harassment (71 percent) and electing more women to political office (61 percent). Aren't we always being told that violence against women is hyped, that sexual harassment is political correctness run amok, that women already get equal pay for the equal work they don't really want to be doing, that they're insulted by the very thought that they might vote for a woman on gender grounds and that far from wanting childcare they'd like to stay home? That 62 percent say we "need a strong women's movement" is not easy to reconcile with the right-wing mantra that feminism is outdated and irrelevant. The high percentages of blacks (63) and Latinas (68) who see the need for a women's movement contradicts the stereotype that women's rights are a white woman's thing.

Like all polls, "Progress and Perils" should be read with a skeptical eye. It's based on two telephone surveys, one of 2,329 women taken between December 9, 2000, and January 21, 2001, and one of 1,000 women taken between December 17, 2002 and January 2. You could argue that the very act of conducting a lengthy poll by telephone skews the response pool. What sort of person bares her soul to pollsters for upward of an hour--and during the holiday season yet? The sort of person, apparently, who has never heard of Roe v. Wade, which only 43 percent could identify. Respondents were slightly poorer than the national average, and more likely to be married (56 percent versus 52 percent); wives tend to be more conservative than single women. Most controversial, 45 percent identified themselves as "born-again or Evangelical Christian," in line with the Gallup poll but substantially higher than some others (a July 2001 ABC poll came up with 37 percent). Perhaps an overrepresentation of marrieds and born-agains helps explain the abortion responses, which are on the anti-choice end of the current spectrum of polls. Do 51 percent of women really favor outlawing the vast majority of abortions--including those performed to preserve the mother's health, or in cases of severely damaged fetuses, circumstances that in other polls evoke pro-choice majorities, but that were not mentioned here? How about when the "woman" is 12 years old? It is hard to believe women are really so cruel and rigid--after all, approximately four in ten women have had abortions (and 20 percent of abortion recipients are born-again). Countless women have helped others through abortion crises. One wonders why the pollsters offered such stark and minimal choices. Why not ask, as the journalist Cynthia Cooper suggested in an e-mail to the History in Action feminist list, whether women should be forced to bear a child against their will? Why not see if women realize that a rape victim who didn't promptly report the crime to the police could not make use of a rape exception? Why not find out what women actually know about abortion law and access? Interestingly, when the pollsters told women what affirmative action was, support for it went up.

In line with numerous polls that show stagnant or slightly declining support for abortion rights, the numbers got worse between the 2001 and 2003 surveys. Yet other polls from January 2003 showed much more support for abortion rights--an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 59 percent agreeing that abortion should be left up to a woman and her doctor, up from 57 percent in 1990. In an ABC/Washington Post poll, 57 percent agreed abortion should be legal in all or most cases; 56 percent said it should be as easy as now to get an abortion, or easier. A Gallup poll had 53 percent saying Roe was a good thing--versus only 30 percent saying it was a bad thing.

Polls are not known for their internal consistency, but even by the lax standards of phone polls the CAW poll is a little strange. For example, 41 percent named abortion as "a top priority" for the women's movement--11 percentage points more than thought it should be generally available! And 27 percent named it as a lower priority--put that together with the 51 percent who say they oppose legal abortion all or almost all the time, and you have at least 19 percent who oppose abortion but think abortion rights should be a priority of the women's movement. Come again? The low priority that respondents think abortion should have in the women's movement reflects the answers of women who oppose the women's movement--which is a bit like asking the Pope what the rabbi should preach.

Still, whatever its flaws, "Progress and Perils" is a much needed summons to the pro-choice and feminist movements. We've concentrated on lobbying and judge-watching and clinic defense (as well as the actual provision of women's reproductive health services, which the anti-choicers don't bother with)--vital, necessary work. But we've let the grassroots education and activism slide. "You have to win the hearts and minds of the people," Wattleton told me. "And that takes place in the public arena." The anti-choicers have been all over that arena for years. "Progress and Perils" shows how effective they've been.

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