In the News 2012
Politifact Rhode Island

Catholics for Choice president says only 14 percent of Catholics agree with Vatican’s position that abortion, under all circumstances, should be illegal

On April 11, 2012, the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee took testimony on several bills focusing on the abortion issue, including one that would require a doctor to show each woman seeking an abortion an ultrasound image of her fetus before the procedure (although the woman wouldn’t be required to view it).

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, was one of the people who presented written testimony to the committee, which held that bill, and others, for further study.

One of the statistics he cited caught our eye: “Only 14 percent of Catholics agree with the Vatican’s position that abortion should be illegal.” We wondered if the support was really that low.

We’ve looked at public opinion on the abortion question before. On February 12, 2012, we found that in most surveys, more Americans regard themselves as “pro-choice” than “pro-life.” But the gap is narrow and has gotten smaller over the years.

O’Brien was focusing exclusively on Catholics and only on whether they agree with the Vatican’s stance, that abortion should be illegal under any circumstance, not whether they consider themselves “pro-life.”

The “Respect for Human Life” section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.”

When we called O’Brien’s office to ask for his source, Catholics for Choice directed us to its 2009 survey of 923 Catholics who were registered voters, a study conducted by Belden Russonello & Stewart.

Only 14 percent said abortion should be illegal in all instances. Another 37 percent said it should be legal in just a few cases, 27 percent said it should be legal in most cases and 21 percent said it should be legal in all cases. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

Among the 356 who said they attended Mass frequently, 31 percent said abortion should never be legal. The rate was 6 percent among the 426 who occasionally attend Mass and 3 percent among the 138 who said they never attend.

We came across a 2004 Quinnipiac University poll which found that 17 percent of Catholics said abortion should be illegal in all cases while 16 percent said it should be legal in all cases.

Quinnipiac asked the same questions in 2009 and found little change among Catholics; 16 percent wanted abortion to be illegal in all instances while 13 percent said it should be legal in all cases.

The Pew Research Center has also looked at the question. Its director of survey research, Scott Keeter, sent us the latest survey, of 2,410 adults — including 532 Catholics — conducted from Sept. 22 to Oct. 4, 2011. While 16 percent of all respondents said abortion should be illegal in all cases (with a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points), 19 percent of Catholics (with a margin of error of 5 points) felt the same way.

And the Knights of Columbus released their own survey, done by Maris in December 2011, in which 14 percent of Catholics said abortion should always be illegal. The same percentage said abortion should be available at any time during a pregnancy.

Again, in all the surveys we saw, Catholics split along the same lines as non-Catholics and devout Catholics were more likely to agree with the Vatican stance on the legality of abortion.

Here’s the summary:

Catholics say abortion should be… Quinnipiac 2004 Quinnipiac 2009 Catholics for Choice 2009 Pew 2011 Knights of Columbus 2011
Always illegal 17% 16% 14% 19% 14%
Mostly illegal 31% 28% 37% 26% N.A.
Mostly legal 30% 37% 27% 33% N.A.
Always legal 16% 13% 21% 18% 14%

Our ruling

Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice said that “only 14 percent of Catholics agree with the Vatican’s position that abortion should be illegal.”

Two polls, one commissioned by his organization and one commissioned by the Knights of Columbus, support that precise number. Other, independent, polls show a bit more support among Catholics for the church’s official position, but not a lot, unless the question is posed to the most devout.

O’Brien offered a very specific number, without qualifiers. He is very close, especially when you consider that the margin of error grows when such polls pull out the subset of respondents who are Catholic.

But because there is some variation, we rate his statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published in PolitiFact Rhode Island.

Catholics for Choice