“A solid 60 percent of voters oppose 20-week bans when they understand the real-world impact these laws would have.”

— Planned Parenthood Action Fund, news release, June 11, 2015

The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act is also known as the 20-week abortion ban bill. Several states have approved the 20-week ban, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have pushed for this ban since 2013. GOP 2016 presidential hopeful Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) recently reintroduced the House-passed bill in the Senate.

A cursory search of polling on public sentiment on the controversial 20-week ban shows that the majority of voters actually support the restriction. But this particular quote by Planned Parenthood Action Fund is worth a deeper dive; public attitudes toward abortion and confusion over the bill’s language make this issue much more intricate than that.

The Fact Checker recently highlighted the discrepancy between how the bill’s supporters and opponents measure 20 weeks — an obscure but key difference that has contributed to inconsistent news coverage and general confusion among the public and readers. The Fact Checker obviously takes no position in the abortion debate.

What polling is the Planned Parenthood Action Fund referring to, and what is the “real-world impact” that 60 percent of voters “understand”?

The Facts

A quick refresher: Both the 2013 and 2015 versions of the bill and several state versions of the ban measure fetal age using the “post-fertilization” method: from the moment of conception. This is different from the more common way to date a pregnancy: from the first day of the woman’s last menstrual period (“LMP”). The medical community at large and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention use this measure, under the notion that a woman remembers the day she started her last period but cannot know the exact day she became pregnant.

Fertilization takes about two weeks after the first day of LMP. So when the bill’s supporters say “20 weeks,” they mean 20 weeks post-fertilization. When the bill’s opponents say “20 weeks,” they mean 20 weeks LMP, or 18 weeks post-fertilization.

In other words: “20 weeks” to bill supporters ≠ “20 weeks” to bill opponents. The two sides are talking past each other.

This is an important distinction that rarely is clarified in news coverage, news releases, policy documents, floor speeches and so on. A June 1, 2015, Guttmacher Institute policy brief on the 20-week ban provides background on this matter, and shows which state laws use which definition.

The bill seeks to ban abortions earlier than the age of viability, generally pegged at 24 to 28 weeks LMP. Research has found that 22-week fetuses LMP can survive outside of the womb, with aggressive treatment.

The poll referenced in the Planned Parenthood news release was conducted by Hart Research Associates in August 2013, amid debate over the 2013 version of the bill. The Hart survey of 1,011 registered voters was unlike other surveys, and set out to measure voters’ circumstantial opinions of the 20-week bans. It does not differentiate the post-fertilization definition in the bill. The poll asked about “efforts at state and national levels to ban abortions after the 20th week of a woman’s pregnancy,” and whether they think it should be legal or illegal for a woman to have an abortion after 20 weeks when:

  • The pregnancy resulted from rape or incest (legal: 61 percent; illegal: 30 percent; not sure: 9 percent)
  • A woman’s doctor determines that the fetus has severe abnormalities that would cause fetal death or extreme disability (legal: 58 percent; illegal: 31 percent: not sure: 11 percent)
  • A woman’s doctor determines that the woman would suffer serious, long-lasting health problems if she carried the pregnancy to term (legal: 66 percent; illegal: 23 percent; not sure: 11 percent)
  • A woman’s doctor determines that the woman would be permanently unable to become pregnant again if she carried the pregnancy to term (legal: 45 percent; illegal; 38 percent: not sure: 17 percent)
  • A woman’s doctor determines that the fetus is not yet viable and the woman and her family determine that her health and personal circumstances are such that she should not continue her pregnancy (legal: 61 percent; illegal: 28 percent; not sure: 11 percent)

The key wording in Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s statement is: “when they understand the real-world impact these laws would have,” referring to the situational questions above. Notice that the support for legal abortions after the 20th week range from 45 percent to 66 percent.

These results are not surprising. According to Washington Post survey research analyst Scott Clement, Americans’ attitudes on abortion are highly circumstantial; past polls have shown Americans overwhelmingly support the right for women to obtain an abortion if her health is in danger, if there is a risk of serious health defect to the child, or if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.

However, Americans generally are opposed to abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. A 2013 Washington Post-ABC News poll found 56 percent of voters preferred limiting unrestricted abortion rights to 20 weeks rather than 24 weeks.  A 2012 Gallup poll found 61 percent of Americans believe abortion should generally be legal during the first trimester, but the support dropped to 27 percent in the second trimester and 14 percent in the third trimester. (The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists defines second trimester as 14 to nearly 28 weeks LMP.)

A more recent national poll asked a circumstantial question about abortions “after 20 weeks of pregnancy” except in cases of rape and incest, similar to the first question in the Hart poll. But the result was the opposite. The November 2014 Quinnipiac poll found 60 percent of registered voters support a ban after 20 weeks, except in cases of rape and incest that are reported to authorities. A National Journal poll in 2013 found a 48-44 split on the 20-week ban.

There are exceptions in the current bill for certain cases of rape and incest, and in cases where the abortion is necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman — though only for physical conditions, not emotional or psychological conditions.

A Planned Parenthood Action Fund representative did not provide a response on the record.

The Pinocchio Test

It is to Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s credit that they added a caveat about the poll. This statement is an example of reading the code behind the caveat, which suggest to readers that the questions had been crafted to reach a result.

Public attitudes toward abortion are circumstantial in general, especially when the circumstances involve the health of the mother or the child, or if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. While the Hart poll asked about circumstances that other polls did not, there are at least two other national polls that asked about the same rape and incest exception. Those two polls found the opposite of what the Hart survey found: 60 percent of Americans support a ban after 20 weeks, except in cases of rape or incest.

However, Planned Parenthood’s claim is still misleading. The poll did not specify that it was asking about terminating a pregnancy 22 weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period — the dating method that Planned Parenthood and other opponents of the bill use and accept. Moreover, it did not test for the actual bill under consideration, with its exceptions for certain cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother but not for emotional issues. We wavered between One and Two Pinocchios. But the Hart polling memo specifically refers to provisions in H.R. 1797 (the 2013 version) — and this particular poll is outdated at best for the 2015 debate, thus tipping the rating to Two.

Both sides should be transparent about the age method they are using. We will continue to monitor uses of the “20 week” phrase without clarification, which will earn automatic Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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