Are Canadians in conflict about abortion? Or merely conflicted?

Understanding polls on the volatile issue is harder than getting Parliament to talk about it

My colleague Aaron Wherry points out a revealing Forum poll that suggests a hard swing in Canadian public opinion against legal restrictions on abortion.

True that, and the accompanying Post story references a contradiction I saw in polls when writing my own recent piece on fetal rights. A clear majority of respondents will say they favour unrestricted access to abortion; yet the same poll will show majority support (especially among women) for some kind of regulation or oversight during the third trimester of pregnancy.

Example: last summer Postmedia published an Ipsos Reid poll in which more people (49 per cent) said abortion should be permitted “whenever a woman decides she wants one” than said it should be permitted “in certain circumstances” (45 per cent).

Yet the same poll had a 60-per cent majority in favour of “a law that places limits on when a woman can have an abortion during her pregnancy, such as during the last trimester.”

This sort of contradiction arises all the time in polling, flummoxing surveyors and reporters alike (which result deserves emphasis?). Personally, I’ve begun to wonder whether, when asked a simple question about if a woman’s access to safe abortion should be in any way restricted, most respondents imagine a woman in the early stages of pregnancy and answer with an emphatic ‘no.’

Then, when asked about a fetus in the late stages of development, a sizable number admit to qualms, tipping the result in the other way. Some pollsters randomize their question order to avoid this type of outcome. But it’s not always possible to do in a way that provides coherent results.

That said, the new poll clearly suggests the public is re-engaged on abortion, and reacting negatively to the idea of restrictions. Woodworth’s motion—and the frighteningly vapid remarks of some U.S. political candidates—seem like pretty good explanations for the turnabout.

Take a poll now, in the wake of the news out of Ireland, and it says here you’d get an even stronger response.