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Jewish World Review May 1, 2000 / 26 Nissan, 5760

Chris Matthews

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Consumer Reports


Abortion polls don't reflect reality -- PEOPLE WILL QUICKLY TELL POLLSTERS what they think about abortion rights. The problem is that many don't like to admit, perhaps most of all to themselves, what they really think.

According to a Gallup Poll out last week, a narrow majority of us (51 percent) believe that abortion should be legal "only under certain circumstances." A smaller number (28 percent) want it legal under "any" circumstance, with an even smaller number (19 percent) believing it should be "illegal" all the time.

Of that robust crowd of 51 percent who believe abortion should be "legal only under certain circumstances," 38 percent say they mean only in "a few" circumstances. Just 11 percent say they mean under "most" circumstances.

Playing with such numbers can be dangerously misleading. Add that 38 percent who told the pollsters they only want abortion rights in "a few" cases to the 19 percent who want to outlaw abortion altogether, and you get more than half the country (57 percent) saying they want to keep abortion legal in "a few" cases or not at all.

I don't believe that number. I believe it's a case where people are telling pollsters (and perhaps themselves) what they think they want to hear.

Consider that tricky word, "circumstances."

You have to wonder how people openly answering questions about abortion rights apply that term ever so quietly to themselves. Are those who say they back abortion rights only in "a few" cases thinking, perhaps incorrectly, that they can't imagine any "circumstances" where they'd desire to have an abortion?

Are those who say they back abortion rights in "most" circumstances simply more ready to imagine — or recall — themselves being in precisely such "circumstances" as any other woman wanting an abortion?

People seem to have very clear positions, as you might expect, on how late a woman should be permitted to have an abortion. Again, don't be fooled by the numbers.

Sixty-five percent say abortion rights are generally OK for the first three months of pregnancy. Just 24 percent generally approve the choice of an abortion in the fourth, fifth or sixth month. Only 8 percent generally support abortion rights in the last three months of pregnancy.

But when people are asked what health reasons should legally justify getting an abortion, the numbers shoot to the sky: Eighty-four percent say when the woman's life is endangered; 81 percent say when a woman's physical health is endangered; 64 percent when a woman's mental health is endangered; 53 percent when the baby may be born with a physical impairment; 53 percent when the baby may be born with a mental impairment.

But the cold, tragic fact is that most such health information is not available to the pregnant woman in the first three months. It is later when she gets the test results, later when she must answer those brutal questions of life and morality. It is then that she must speak — not to a pollster or politician — but to her own conscience.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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