Poll: Majority of Texans Favor Both "Fetal Pain" Proposal and Abortion Rights

Yesterday, Collin County state Representative Jodie Laubenberg filed a bill that would ban all abortions after 20 weeks, calling it the "Preborn Pain Act." The bill is premised on deeply questionable science which claims that fetuses can feel pain at that point in a pregnancy, and ignores a heap of other science that strongly indicates otherwise.

Governor Rick Perry, who's a big fan, released a statement reiterating his support for the bill, writing that Texas "has a responsibility to prevent the needless suffering of our most vulnerable citizens." In case you didn't understand who he was talking about in the previous sentence, he adds, "[W]e will continue to do everything we can to protect the lives of the unborn, until abortion is finally a thing of the past."

Today, the Texas Tribune ran the results of a survey they conducted back in February with UT Austin. It found that a majority of Texans support the "fetal pain" proposal. But they also support access to abortion, and 39 percent of those surveyed think abortion should be available "always as a matter of choice." How can both those things be true?

The pollsters speculate that at least some of the support for the fetal pain proposal stems from its name. As Daron Shaw, a professor of government at UT Austin and a co-director of the poll, puts it, "The idea that you would be in favor of 'fetal pain' is a pretty tough position."

At the time that the survey was conducted, the measure hadn't yet been introduced into the Legislature and the bill text wasn't available. The pollsters simply asked if the survey participants would support "a 'fetal pain' proposal banning abortions after 20 weeks." Forty-two percent of those surveyed said they'd "strongly support" such a measure, while 15 percent said they'd "somewhat support it, and 26 percent overall said they would oppose it either strongly or somewhat. (The survey was conducted online, with 1,200 people participating and a margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points).

But the pollsters also found that people's attitudes towards abortion hadn't changed much from a previous poll. Besides the 39 percent who said abortion should be available "always," 13 percent believed it should be available "in cases where the need is clearly established" and 29 percent in cases of "rape, incest, and mother's life," as the poll put it. Only 15 percent believed the procedure should never be available.

In other words, there are at least some people out there who say they believe abortion should be available always, as a matter of choice, but at the same time are understandably against something called "fetal pain" and would support a relatively early total abortion ban based on that term. These confused survey results remind us of the Texas Freedom Network poll from a few weeks ago, the one that found that a majority people supported state funding for family planning, and said they "strongly opposed" the $73 million or so the state cut from family planning services in 2011. Yet only a little more than half of them actually wanted the lost funding to be restored.

All of which shows us a few things: Abortion is, duh, still a deeply divisive issue here, and people often hold fierce, and sometimes fiercely contradictory, ideas about when it should be allowed. But it shows too, not for the first time, that what you call a piece of legislation can go a long way towards determining how people feel about it (hello again, Clear Skies Act). The same argument about deceptive bill-titling was made by opponents of the Violence Against Women Act, who resented the implication that they somehow supported domestic abuse (when in fact they only supported domestic abuse against American Indians, gay people and illegal immigrants).

Rick Perry, who's positioned himself as a proponent of the "fetal pain legislation" since the outset, is clearly aware of the power of that phrase. As the Tribune points out, when he endorsed the measure during his State of the State speech earlier this year, he made sure to use that exact phrase, which the Trib says had already polled well a month before.

If you haven't already, read Sasha Issenberg's fascinating e-book Rick Perry and His Eggheads, which shows how Perry used randomized trials and extensive polling to figure out the best ways to boost his popularity and win re-election. And he did, resoundingly. The man is really good at this stuff.

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