The November 25 National Post reported that a poll released in the closing days of the recent federal election campaign found “most [respondents] support abortion rights” but a closer look at the numbers – and the questions – paints a different picture.
The COMPAS survey of 512 Canadians on what the Post referred to as “hot-button issues” including abortion, creationism and capital punishment found exactly two-thirds of respondents supporting abortion to some extent. The poll, commissioned by the National Post, Southam News, and Global TV, had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
In an overview fact sheet distributed to the commissioning media outlets, COMPAS said it found a “strong majority support for the pro-choice position on abortion,” but “support for the principle that the decision to abort should be the woman’s alone is leavened by equally strong support for legal constraints in the particular instance of third trimester abortions.”
The COMPAS question used to ascertain the pro-life and “pro-choice” position of respondents leaves a lot to be desired. Twenty-six percent of Canadians, including 31 per cent of Alliance supporters and 27 per cent of Liberal supporters agreed “That abortion involves taking the life of a defenceless human, that hospitals often devote a lot of medical resources to save foetuses who are no older than those that are aborted, and that abortion should be prohibited except when the mother is in danger or in the case of rape or incest.” On the other hand, 66 per cent of Canadians agreed with the statement, “Other people say that women should have the absolute right to make abortion decisions for themselves and that making abortion illegal would do a lot more harm than good causing pregnant women to go to backstreet abortionists.” Note how both questions were “loaded,” especially the latter with its graphic image of backstreet abortions. Six per cent answered they held a view between these two positions.
Asked about specific limits on abortion, 70 per cent of respondents favoured limitations after six months and a slight plurality (41 versus 39 per cent) favoured some undefined limits on first trimester abortions. Clearly many who agreed with the “pro-choice” option also agree with some limitations on even first trimester abortions.
CLC national president Jim Hughes told The Interim these numbers are a “clear indication the country wants an abortion law.” Canada has not had any federal abortion law since the Supreme Court of Canada’s Morgentaler decision in 1988.
Conrad Winn, president of COMPAS, noted respondents gave nuanced answers depending on the circumstances that, in the words of the Post, “indicate they make decisions on a case-by-case basis, rather than delivering sweeping judgments.” Unfortunately, neither the headline nor the tone of the coverage recognized this fact and blindly promoted the myth that there is a near consensus in support of the status quo on abortion.