How polls and statistics managed to support both sides of the abortion debate

We rely on them to back up our debates and opinions, but can we actually trust them?

Argentina’s recent failure to legalise abortion came as a surprise to many, both inside the country and abroad. Polls seemed to consistently show that opinion leant towards the pro-choice side, and the shocking statistics about clandestine and potentially fatal DIY abortions made the opposite view seem reckless at best. But, Aug. 8 came and went and abortion remains illegal in most cases in the country. So, what exactly happened?

The run-up to the abortion debates took over social media with #AbortoLegalYa (#LegaliseAbortionNow), showing a very different picture to what was happening on the ground. International media blew up over the subject, condemning Argentina’s current law as a violation of human rights. Despite the conservative’s response of #SaveTwoLives, as well as the Pope himself hitting instagram to promote the “divine gift” of life, the pro-choice camp seemed to have the upper edge.

Media coverage also played a part, as dozens of different polls were published, spewing out contradictory statistics to further confuse the population. Adam Probolsky is the president of Probolsky Research, a company which specialises in market and business research, and he told The Bogota Post of the media’s effect on current affairs.

“There is a tendency by the media to want a robust contest and have something on a daily basis to talk about.” Probolsky said, “Some people may look at that as a criticism of the media but I think that’s just the reality of it. They choose to focus on certain numbers and not to cover others.”

This can be seen in national newspapers, with headlines shouting out statistics such as Clarin’s  ‘55% of people are in favour of abortion’  in contrast with La Nacion’s ‘49% of people reject the proposal and 40% support it.’ El Perfil’s headline revealed that 59% of those asked were in favour of abortion, but only specified near the end of the article that out of the options available, the three pushing the average up at 60, 59 and 66% were in favour of abortion in situations that were already legal in Argentina, like rape. For other, illegal, situations, such as the failure of a contraceptive method or a lack of economic resources, the numbers plunged to 25% and 30% respectively.

One of the most frequent numbers thrown around during debates was the amount of clandestine abortions performed in Argentina. This is obviously an extremely difficult number to research due to the illegal nature of it, and numbers varied from 350,000 every year to half a million. Pro-life supporter Laura Scullino spoke to Argentina Reports about how some individuals can clutch onto numbers to support their beliefs without checking the veracity of the source.

“A person can have convictions that are in some way influenced by incorrect data,” she explained. “For example, ‘There are I don’t know how many deaths caused by clandestine abortions, therefore I have to be the voice of the women who died,’ whereas in reality, the exact numbers are something else, not those that we are generally shown on TV, the number is less.”

Probolsky, with 25 years of experience in polling, also underlined the variability when in comes to the quality of polls and surveys, and how only using one method to collect data could result in a non-representative figure.

“There is a shift in research which some caught on to and others didn’t,” Probolsky said, “Bottom line is that being able to survey people in multiple modes is really important. Talking to people on telephones and giving people the opportunity to respond online are really critical to getting active results.”

It is near-impossible to give a fair and true representation of an entire country’s opinion on a certain topic, and even full referendums aren’t foolproof. However, as a referendum was rejected by Argentina’s government, the country had to rely on the Senator’s decision, which may or may not be what the majority of the Argentine population wanted.

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