Abortion Counseling and Polls

THE House of Representatives last week voted by a wide margin to lift a ban on abortion counseling at federally funded health clinics. Free speech, confidentiality, privacy, and choice won out, as they should have.The ban, initiated by a regulation issued during the Reagan administration and backed by President Bush, intrudes on the patient-physician relationship and affects primarily the poorer women who use publicly supported clinics. The Supreme Court, however, subordinated these concerns and deferred to the executive branch's authority to issue regulations in its May 23 decision upholding the ban. As House members debated the issue, pollsters tried to throw light on the public's feelings about the court's ruling. Both sides were hoping for findings that would bolster their arguments in Congress - and both sides, anomalously, got what they wanted. One poll, paid for by the National Right to Life Committee and conducted by the Wirthlin Group, found 69 percent backing for the Supreme Court decision. A second poll, conducted by Louis Harris and paid for by Planned Parenthood, turned those figures on their head, with 65 percent opposing the court's ruling and 33 percent favoring. These findings may say more about survey methods than the public's true feelings. If the lead-in to a question about the Supreme Court ruling highlighted freedom of speech and confidentiality between physicians and their patients, the anti-ban position won big. But if the context and wording raised the issue of abortion as a method of family planning, pro-ban feelings dominated. What most came to light, it seems, is the great difficulty of posing complex questions of constitutional law in a way that elicits an unambiguous response. The difficulty grows when parties with vested interests are behind the questions - and when millions of Americans find themselves pulled in several directions by an emotion-laden issue like abortion. As the action moves to the Senate and a promised presidential veto, lawmakers may have to rely more on their own consciences than on polls for guidance.

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