Almost No One?

Posted on September 26, 2017 By

by Rachel MacNair

In our neck of the internet, many are abuzz over an article in Christianity Today (CT) entitled “Almost No One in the US Believes in a ‘Consistent Ethic of Life.’” The subheading is: “Pope Francis’ critique of President Trump would apply to 96 percent of Americans, surveys suggest.” Thousands of hits, hundreds of comments.

I have a Ph.D. in psychology and make my living by consulting with dissertation students on their statistics, so my mind runs on how to do studies correctly. I also review for academic journals quite a bit – the “peer review” that’s required before an article can get published. CT is a popular magazine rather than a journal, but this piece would never get past my review.

How Do You Ask The Question?

Here’s the abortion question from the poll CT cites: “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if: The woman wants it for any reason? (Favor/Oppose)”

First, the wording is biased toward the “pro-choice” way of seeing the situation. Second, there are plenty of people who assume that a woman is only going to “want” an abortion if she’s in dire circumstances, such as a threat to her life. Third, there are people who are dead set against abortion who nevertheless fear back-alley butchers.

Indeed, there are people who assert that they’re pro-life, and who spend major amounts of their time educating against abortion, who still think that making it illegal isn’t the best way to stop it. Gallup asked straight out if people see abortion as immoral regardless of legal status, and found that about half do.

Here’s the question on the death penalty: Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder? (Favor/Oppose).

It’s been known for years among death penalty opponents that the quickest way to lower support for the death penalty is to offer life without parole as an alternative. A lot of people just want to be clear that the crime of murder is being taken seriously.

The Death Penalty Information Center reports: “A 2010 poll by Lake Research Partners found that a clear majority of voters (61%) would choose a punishment other than the death penalty for murder” when the question was asked that way. Their 61% figure is the sum of the three alternate punishments that respondents chose (13% + 9% + 39%).

From the Death Penalty Information Center

The wording on euthanasia in the CT-cited poll was: “Do you think a person has the right to end his or her own life if this person: Has an incurable disease? (Yes/No).” To test how neutral this wording is, consider: are you going to tell someone in such bad shape that he or she doesn’t have a right? What kind of hard-hearted person are you, to take rights away from people?

When there have been state referenda, where people opposed to assisted suicide are able to make their case, it’s been more persuasive to people than a one-sentence question worded in a pro-suicide direction would allow for.

How many people who say people should have a right to “end life” would change their minds if the question simply used the word “suicide”?

A “right to end his or her own life” could have very different meanings to different people. Some might interpret the question as referring to people killing themselves without any assistance (“suicide” as conventionally understood), people killing themselves with a doctor’s assistance (“assisted suicide”), or people being killed by another person (“euthanasia”). If they’re thinking it through that clearly at all.

Perhaps some aren’t even catching what this wording is a euphemism for. They might assume we’re only talking about refusing more medical care (“pulling the plug”), not actively killing. Refusing care is already a right, and has been for centuries. It actually isn’t euthanasia and shouldn’t be labeled as such.

Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife – Yes or No?

The poll asks for yes/no or favor/oppose responses. People have to put themselves in a straightjacket to answer. Nuances and extra details are out the window.

I’ve had fun when I was being polled by phone by arguing with the wording I was given. Those poor poll-takers were so used to compliant people who would give them a simplistic answer according to the script they had.

Some people haven’t devoted a lot of thought to issues and are easily persuaded by something as simple as wording the question differently. I remember back in the 1980s, there was a poll that asked people two questions, with several questions in between: “Should abortion be a matter between a woman and her doctor?” (which implies a medical need) and “Should the life of the unborn child be protected by law?” The “yes” answers were the majority both times – from the same people in the same poll.

Again, sometimes the same people in the same poll can be easily diverted from support for the death penalty by offering alternatives. People could also quickly change their ideas of a supposed right to end life if they understood alternatives. Many are assuming we’re talking about people  in unbearable pain, and would feel differently if they were aware of pain control. Or they have images of hopeless sterile hospital rooms, but might change their minds if they were more familiar with hospice care.

Almost No One?

Still, we’ve always known that the proportion of clear-cut consistent-lifers, who would oppose killing no matter how the questions are worded, is small.

But consider this as an analogy: in the U.S., 3 to 6% is around the percentage of full vegetarians – people who say they never eat meat. You can get a higher percentage if you simply ask them if they’re vegetarians.

Yet vegetarian foods are readily available in their own section of the menu at most non-fast-food restaurants, and vegetarian/vegan restaurants are proliferating. Vegetarian foods are readily available in most grocery stores. The number of people who eat vegetarian much of the time is much larger. The influence of vegetarianism is far greater than simply the number of people who are 100% committed to eating that way.

The small percentage doesn’t make them “almost no one.”

But the bias of the title fits the bias of the questions. Thinking of us as nobodies suggests we don’t need to be taken seriously. Of course, thinking of any human beings as nobodies is exactly what we’re objecting to.

Making the Appeal

We’ve always known that we have a hard time getting the consistent life ethic across.

Would but that we could get as many as 4% of politicians for higher office in the U.S. to follow the consistent life ethic. We’d be ecstatic if we could find just one politician who knew how to articulate our view well, did so frequently, and could get news coverage.

Would but that we could get as many as 4% of reporters outside the Catholic press to take the consistent life ethic seriously. Even within the Catholic press, there’s a lot of parting of the ways as Respect Life goes to one corner and Peace and Justice goes to another.

I’m a Quaker myself, but Pope Francis was mentioned in the CT article’s sub-title, and is a prominent voice. When he spoke to the US Congress, he had two devout Catholics standing behind him – Vice President Joe Biden, and Speaker of the House John Boehner. Neither one follows the consistent life ethic. They choose different ways to diverge from it.

But the percentage of Americans who think any old kind of socially-approved violence is ok is actually also very small. Most people are bothered by at least one type of legalized killing, and usually several. This was Edith Bogue’s conclusion in Chapter 10 of our book, Consistently Opposing Killing, which analyzed data from the exact same survey the CT article used, the General Social Survey, though that chapter used data from several years ago. She says the seamless garment needs many tailors, but most people do worry about some kind of violence. We can use that discomfort with at least some kinds of violence as a starting point to appeal for people to consistently oppose other kinds of violence as well.

After all, the poll only asked people about issues one by one. What happens when connections are made is another matter.


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  1. Mary Liepold says:

    Right on, Rachel! How you ask the question makes all the difference – and nobody is really “anti-life.”

    • Vasu Murti says:

      I agree with you: it all depends on how the issue is framed. As early as 1984, I pointed out to my friends and college roommates Chris and Victor that polling can be subjective. If you ask Americans, “Should there be a Constitutional Amendment banning abortion?” the response will be lukewarm. This is America. We don’t “ban” things here. But if you ask them, “Should there be a Constitutional Amendment extending rights to the unborn?” — which sounds egalitarian! — the response will be favorable.

  2. Tony Masalonis says:

    The CT analysis is problematic for a few reasons (although if you read their original article you have to admit they recognize some of the assumptions/leaps they made.)

    The biggest issue is that they misrepresent the CLE as most of us understand it.

    As Rachel touched on, they treat euthanasia and suicide (assisted or otherwise) as interchangeable terms. We oppose euthanasia and the survey question clearly is not about euthanasia.

    And very importantly: there’s no mention at all of opposition to war as part of the the Ethic!

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