During the July 27 edition of Fox News’ Special Report, chief legal correspondent Shannon Bream reported that the Democratic Party’s positions on increasing abortion access and funding run contrary to the “personal convictions of average Americans.”
To support this argument, Bream cited a recent poll commissioned by the Knights of Columbus -- a self-identified “pro-life” group that has waged “a decades-long battle against abortion legislation.” Beyond failing to disclose the ideological affiliations of the group commissioning the poll, Bream also attempted to use the data to misleadingly suggest that Americans have a unified and consistently anti-choice position on abortion access.
According to Bream, the Knights of Columbus poll shows that “78 percent” of Americans “say they support substantial restrictions on abortion, including 62 percent of those who self-identify as pro-choice.” However, as previous research has shown, polling on individuals’ support for abortion is complicated and highly contextual.
For example, as Vox’s Sarah Kliff explained, 39 percent of Americans do not self-identify as either “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” and this determination is often influenced heavily by the wording of individual poll questions. She noted that although many people had “strongly held” feelings about abortion, much of the phrasing in polls fails to capture “the personal factors and situations that influence how each individual thinks about the issue.” Kliff continued that in poll questions, “a simple wording change can significantly alter whether Americans say they support legal abortion.”
When MSNBC’s Irin Carmon compared the questions asked in different polls she, too, found that a simple shift in phrasing or question style could substantially alter a poll’s findings:
You could ask Americans if they want Roe v. Wade overturned, as the Pew Research Center did in 2013, and learn that 63 percent want to see it stand. Or you could ask Americans to choose between two vague statements, like the recent poll the Marist Institute for Public Opinion conducted for the Knights of Columbus, a group that opposes abortion. Asked to pick between “it is possible to have laws which protect both the health and well-being of a woman and the life of the unborn; or two, it is necessary for laws to choose to protect one and not the other,” 77 percent said it was possible to do everything. The policy implications of the first statement are unclear.
Asking about what the law should be, whether generally or specifically, is when it gets really messy. According to one pollster, the most popular question of all – asking people if they think abortion should be legal in all, most or certain circumstances – is the most problematic.
“I don’t even want to ask this dumb question anymore, because it doesn’t work,” says Tresa Undem. “It’s a bad polling measurement.” She conducted the Vox poll as well as a recent one for the National Institute for Reproductive Health, which supports abortion rights, and has written about the problem with polling on abortion.
Why? When Undem looked only at the 34 percent of people who said they thought abortion should be legal only in cases of rape, incest and health risk, she found contradictory views.
But Undem says that internally conflicting views on abortion are par for the course. “On this topic, where people haven’t sorted through all their thoughts about it, you ask one question, the next you can get a reverse response.”
Americans across the ideological spectrum also tend to share a variety of fundamentally incorrect perceptions about the frequency and safety of abortion procedures. As Kliff wrote in a February 29 article, Americans often significantly “overestimate the safety risks for women who have abortions" and underestimate the prevalence of procedure itself. Despite the fact that abortion is both common and incredibly safe, these misconceptions can negatively skew an individual’s perception of the procedure.
The July 27 Special Report segment was far from the first time Bream has used selectively framed polling data to suggest Americans oppose abortion access and reproductive health care.
In January 2016, Bream cited another poll from the Knights of Columbus to allege that “81 percent of Americans think abortion should be limited to the first three months of pregnancy.” During the report, Bream did not note that the poll was commissioned by the anti-choice group.
Beyond pushing selectively framed polling, Bream also has a history of presenting misleading reporting on a number of reproductive rights topics. For example, long after the anti-choice group Center for Medical Progress (CMP) and its smear campaign against Planned Parenthood were discredited, Bream gave CMP founder David Daleiden an unchallenged platform to continuing pushing misinformation.
While Fox News and Bream used selectively framed polling to criticize the Democratic Party’s platform as “out of step with the majority of Americans,” they have ignored the fallacious positions on abortion and Planned Parenthood codified in the official Republican Party platform.