Anti-abortion group Students for Life of America (SFLA) released a new poll ahead of the 2019 March for Life protest alleging that millennials now overwhelming support anti-choice positions. Right-wing media have hyped the poll, but they have failed to note the extent to which SFLA set up the survey to present a favorable outcome. In fact, the poll demonstrates just how much misinformation the anti-choice movement has to present in order to get most millennials to agree with anti-abortion views.
SFLA, which oversees student chapters of anti-abortion groups across the country, released a poll on January 13 claiming to represent millennials’ “views on abortion, Roe v. Wade, and Planned Parenthood.” SFLA’s poll focused on millennials, who it defined as 18-34 years old, because they are both “the largest voting bloc in America” and allegedly “the target market of abortion vendors.”
Polling on abortion has always been notoriously complicated, and support for both abortion rights and anti-choice restrictions has frequently been shown to depend heavily on how certain questions are asked. As Tresa Undem, founder and partner at the public opinion research firm PerryUndem, wrote for Vox, most “standard measures used to report the public’s views on abortion ... don’t capture how people really think” about the issue, but rather measure a binary viewpoint of right or wrong, legal or illegal. Conducting accurate polling on abortion requires asking questions “in a more real and accurate way” that takes into account “how people actually experience abortion.” When polls use real-life examples, audiences report greater support for abortion access, and new polling from PerryUndem (albeit from a broader audience than just millennials) shows “voters' support for abortion rights is as high as we have seen in years: 73% of voters do not want Roe v. Wade overturned and 67% say abortion should be legal in ‘all’ or ‘most’ cases.”
SFLA’s poll not only lacks consideration of real-life scenarios, but it explicitly inserted anti-abortion misinformation with the goal of influencing respondents’ opinions. In a memo released alongside the poll, SFLA explained that questions originated with the group’s “own experience and conversations on campuses” and were intended to influence and measure “changes in attitude on subjects such as Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood both before and after participants were provided the real facts.” As a result, the poll attempted to measure views on these topics by first asking a baseline question about respondents’ views on Roe and Planned Parenthood, and then asking their views again “after learning” a series of right-wing talking points about abortion and Planned Parenthood, which SFLA calls “real facts.” In other words, SFLA measured how much anti-abortion misinformation respondents had to be presented with before they adopted more anti-choice views on abortion and Planned Parenthood.
Given that SFLA’s poll promotes many right-wing myths as “real facts,” it’s unsurprising that right-wing outlets ran with the results. Breitbart News proclaimed that the poll “found that 70 percent of millennials support limits on abortion” while The Washington Examiner said in its daily health care newsletter that the poll “found that only 7 percent of those polled supported both allowing abortion without any exceptions and using government funding to pay for them” -- a position which The Gateway Pundit erroneously characterized as “the Democratic Party platform.” The College Fix similarly claimed “a plurality of millennials supports the full reversal of Supreme Court decisions that enshrined abortion on demand until fetal viability” once “survey participants were told exactly what Roe v. Wade” supposedly allows. SFLA President Kristan Hawkins later went on Eternal World Television Network’s News Nightly to talk about the poll and make the skewed claim that millennials “lean politically liberal on almost every issue out there -- except abortion” because they “see abortion as violence.”
Other anti-abortion groups quickly began promoting the SFLA poll, with Susan B. Anthony List, the March for Life, and the Family Research Council all tweeting about it. Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins wrote about the poll for The Daily Signal, claiming that “7 in 10 support restrictions on abortion, with 42 percent opposing abortion ‘broadly.’ That’ll come as a shock to the Democrats’ system, which is betting most of its credibility on a surprisingly pro-life age group.”
Right-wing media and anti-abortion groups are going to keep spreading this deceptive poll, so here are five things to know about it:
1. SFLA likely released the poll ahead of the March for Life 2019 as an attempt to drive inaccurate media coverage, just as anti-abortion groups and right-wing media have previously done.
SFLA released this poll during the week of the 2019 March for Life, the annual anti-abortion march against the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Anti-abortion groups and media outlets often use deceptive polling to argue that anti-choice positions have overwhelming popular support. For example, as Media Matters reported during last year’s march, several media outlets spread misinformation about the American public’s alleged support for anti-abortion policies by sharing polling data without proper context or analysis. SFLA’s poll, with its leading language and anti-choice misinformation, appears to be another attempt to drive inaccurate media coverage. Hawkins, in particular, has already used the dubious top lines from the poll to place op-eds in The Washington Times and USA Today.
2. It manipulates people’s views on Roe v. Wade by inserting the inaccurate claim that the decision allows abortions “up until the moment of birth.”
SFLA claimed that its poll accurately measured respondents’ views of Roe v. Wade. However, during baseline questioning the poll found that 40 percent of respondents supported the Roe decision and only 12 percent opposed it. After pollsters posed a series of misleading statements that SFLA calls “real facts,” support for the decision dropped to 35 percent and opposition rose to 41 percent. To influence this shift, the poll’s questions relied on the anti-abortion movement’s favorite right-wing media talking points about Roe.
For example, one statement claimed: “Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, companion Supreme Court cases, allow for abortions to be performed in all nine (9) months of pregnancy, up until the moment of birth.” This is an inaccurate description of both cases. So-called abortion “up until the moment of birth” is a common right-wing myth (sometimes used interchangeably with “abortion on demand” or the nonexistent practice of “partial-birth abortion”) meant to fearmonger about legal later abortion. In reality, later abortions are extremely rare and people have them for a variety of personal and medical reasons.
Another misleading statement from SFLA’s poll claimed: “Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton have been used to justify sending your tax dollars to be used to perform abortions or off-set other expenses of abortion providers.” Despite what this statement implies, under the Hyde Amendment, taxpayer money is prohibited from funding abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or if the life of the pregnant person is at risk -- a harmful policy that primarily hurts low-income individuals who cannot pay out of pocket for abortion care. Similarly, claiming that money is “off-set” for abortion providers is just another way to repeat the common anti-abortion argument that taxpayer money is “fungible,” implying that federal funds indirectly support abortions through Planned Parenthood. Such an argument demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about how federal money is used to support health care organizations like Planned Parenthood, which receive it as reimbursement when serving Medicaid patients.
Another statement in the SFLA poll claimed: “Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton allow for abortions to be performed simply because the mother doesn’t like the sex of the baby or the mother wants to use abortion as a form of contraception.” So-called “sex-selective” abortions are a concept used by anti-choice legislators to justify restricting abortion access, even though these bans have no basis in scientific research or the medical practices of abortion providers and are instead frequently used to vilify Asian-Americans seeking abortions.
Given that it included such stigmatizing and inaccurate language, SFLA’s poll can hardly be considered representative of a wider audience’s support for Roe.
3. It also lies about the safety of medical abortions to suggest that abortion pills should not be made more accessible.
In an one-off question that was not about Roe or Planned Parenthood, SFLA’s poll asked:
Today, about one-third of abortions take place using the drug RU-486. RU-486 can be deadly to women who don't know they are later in pregnancy than they really are, or who are experiencing an ectopic pregnancy. While surgical abortions require an exam by an physician, abortion advocates are asking that RU-486 be sold to women on-line, without a doctor's exam. Do you support/oppose these abortion pills being widely available on-line and sold to women without a doctor's exam?
Though the ability to end a pregnancy at home can be an empowering choice, SFLA’s question omits that the calls for the abortion pill (also known as RU-486) to be available online or over-the-counter were necessitated because the anti-abortion movement pushed to further restrict abortion access, as well as by the potential of a Supreme Court with Justice Brett Kavanaugh overturning Roe. Although SFLA suggested that medication abortions are unsafe, both medication and surgical abortion are actually extremely safe. In fact, medication abortion is safer that alternative procedures since it takes place earlier in the pregnancy and has minimal risks.
4. The poll pushes the right-wing narrative that federally qualified health centers could replace Planned Parenthood clinics.
Beyond a set of questions about Planned Parenthood’s favorability, SFLA’s poll also asked respondents to choose between Planned Parenthood and federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), asking which “is more deserving of our tax payer dollars.”
Anti-abortion groups and right-wing media frequently cite the number of FQHCs to suggest that Planned Parenthood is not an essential health care provider. But despite outnumbering Planned Parenthood clinics in the United States, FQHCs would not be able to handle the influx of patients if Planned Parenthood was stripped of federal funding and low-income patients were forced to go to FQHCs. In addition, the Guttmacher Institute found in 2015 that Planned Parenthood is the only “safety-net health center” able to provide publicly subsidized contraceptive services in 103 U.S. counties. Planned Parenthood’s focus on reproductive health care -- including abortion, which is not provided at FQHCs -- makes it uniquely positioned to provide irreplaceable services in the health care field.
5. The poll was done by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway’s old polling firm.
Beyond SFLA’s involvement in shaping the questions, the organization commissioned a potentially biased firm to actually conduct the poll. The Polling Company Inc./WomanTrend was founded in 1995 by now-White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. As Rewire.News’ Ally Boguhn explained, Conway “spent nearly two decades as a conservative talking head pushing her anti-choice claims under the guise of credibility offered by her work as a pollster,” with her firm advising anti-abortion politicians and “working on behalf of anti-choice groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List, the Heritage Foundation, and Focus on the Family.” The National Catholic Register wrote that anti-abortion activist David Daleiden hired Conway’s firm in 2015 to “conduct two focus groups in Colorado,” helping to “craft the message” around the now-discredited claim that Planned Parenthood illegally sold fetal tissue. The anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List has recently used Conway’s firm to conduct polling in support of the organization’s various anti-choice initiatives. A Republican public relations firm acquired The Polling Company in 2017.
Anti-abortion groups and right-wing media will spend this year’s March for Life claiming that SFLA’s poll proves that millennials are overwhelmingly “pro-life.” Instead, it proves just how much right-wing misinformation these groups have to push before people will support their extreme anti-choice agenda.