Volume 32, Number 4, July/August 2000
Americans' Opinions on Population Issues Are Strong, Although Their Knowledge of the Issues Is Poor
Four-fifths of Americans support U.S. funding for voluntary family planning programs in developing countries, yet about half favor congressional measures that have limited such funding, according to the results of a national public opinion survey on world population issues.1 The survey's findings also indicate that although 66% of U.S. residents are aware that women's lives are saved when abortion is legal, opinions on funding for abortion both abroad and in this country are divided. Furthermore, while the public has clear opinions about "family planning," people have varying notions about what that term implies.
The survey was conducted to determine Americans' knowledge of global population trends, attitudes toward U.S. funding to address population issues in this and other countries, and opinions on family planning and abortion. Public opinion researchers conducted the survey by telephone in August and September 1998, completing 1,500 interviews with U.S. residents aged 16 years and older. After the researchers adjusted for age, gender and racial differences between the sample and the U.S. population, the sample was nationally representative. The survey included roughly 60 variables related to attitudes and opinions about international economic assistance and population issues.
Attitudes About Global Issues
Americans are not very knowledgeable about global population trends. Most respondents could not correctly estimate the world's population, which was 5.9 billion when the survey was conducted. Only 14% thought it was 5-6 billion. The same proportion thought it was at least five times the correct size, and nearly 40% said they did not know the size of the world population. In addition, Americans overestimate how quickly the world population is growing. If current growth rates continue, the 1998 population is expected to double in 50 years, but only 20% of survey participants who said that the world population is growing gave a figure in that range. More than 60% thought the doubling would occur in 40 years or less and nearly 20% did not know or refused to answer. Furthermore, while there is a perception among researchers and some policymakers that low fertility rates in developed countries are a more pressing problem than high fertility rates in developing countries, only 23% of U.S. residents believe (and only 9% strongly believe) that people in developed countries are having too few children.
Three in five Americans (59%) approve of U.S. economic assistance to other countries. Given a selection of 15 possible priorities for the use of U.S. funds abroad, 33-39% of U.S. residents rank each of the following as being the highest priority: increasing infant and child survival rates, protecting the global environment and improving children's health. Thirty percent assign highest priority to helping women in poor countries avoid unintended pregnancies, 25% to improving women's health, 22% to helping countries slow their population growth and 19% to improving women's status.
When asked for their opinions on U.S. support of specific health and humanitarian programs, 80-91% of Americans say they approve of U.S. funding of voluntary family planning programs in developing countries and of efforts to help women support themselves and their families financially, reduce domestic violence against women, improve women's general health, encourage men to take an active role in family planning, give girls in developing countries the same educational opportunities as boys and improve the rate of infant and child survival. The proportion characterizing themselves as strongly in favor of these programs ranges from 45% (for voluntary family planning programs) to 72% (for programs to give girls equal educational opportunities). Opinions about U.S. funding for voluntary, safe abortion services in developing countries are just about evenly divided: Fifty percent of U.S. residents approve, and 47% disapprove.
Despite Americans' general support of U.S. funding for family planning (80%) in developing countries and for voluntary, safe abortion (50%), half favor Congress's votes since 1995 to reduce U.S. funding for family planning by 30%, and 44% agree with the legislature's votes to prevent the United States from funding family planning services offered by overseas providers that perform abortions with non-U.S. funding. Slightly more than one-third (36%) approve congressional actions to withhold United Nations dues for the past 12 years.
Even though Americans are split on funding for abortion, 66% believe that when abortion is legal, women's lives are saved, including 41% whose belief in that statement is very strong. Sixty-five percent think that when abortion is legal, too many women routinely use it as a means of birth control, and 53% say that it encourages more sexual activity among teenagers and unmarried couples. Forty-nine percent say that legal contraception encourages more sexual activity among teenagers and unmarried couples, and 47% say that most legal abortions are a last resort for women whose birth control method has failed.
The researchers also measured the public's attitudes about the relationship between abortion and family planning in developing countries. Fifty-two percent of Americans believe that introducing family planning services in countries where they have not been available would cause the number of abortions to decline, 27% think that it would have no impact on the number of abortions and 15% say that it would cause an increase in the number of abortions.
Attitudes About Domestic Issues
Regarding family planning and abortion in their own country, 83% of U.S. residents believe that family planning is available to most people in the United States. The vast majority (86-87%) say that the government should provide family planning services to poor women (56% strongly favor this policy) and that health insurers should cover family planning services (64% strongly favor this policy).
As with providing funding for abortion services in other countries, U.S. residents are divided on providing government funding for abortion services for poor women in this country: Fifty-one percent oppose such funding, and 47% favor it. Americans' attitudes on whether abortion should be legal are not as clearly divided as their opinions on abortion funding. Some 31% say abortion should be generally available to those who want it; 21% believe that it should be available with stricter limits than are now in place; 37% favor restricting abortion to cases of rape, incest and where it is necessary to save the woman's life; and 11% say that abortion should not be permitted at all.
"Birth Control" and "Family Planning"
To determine what "birth control" and "family planning" mean to the general public, the researchers asked respondents to define these terms and then, in a separate question, directly asked them whether the terms include abortion. The results show that 71% of men and women consider "birth control" a technical term for methods of contraception and the results of using them. For 25%, "birth control" means to provide information or education. The term is a behavioral concept to another 24%, who say it expresses "being responsible" and "reducing unwanted pregnancy." Fewer than 10% associate the term with a variety of other concepts, including sexual freedom, prenatal or health care, and clinics; 6% specifically mentioned abortion when asked to define this term.
"Family planning" has broader connotations for Americans than birth control: Only one-quarter (23%) say it is a synonym for birth control. Almost half (48%) believe that it has to do with reducing unwanted pregnancy and having control over and choice about pregnancy, while 14% associate family planning with prenatal and health care. The term suggests contraceptive methods or abortion to 15%; 7% specifically mentioned abortion when asked about the term. Only 3% say family planning is related to moderating population growth. When asked directly whether family planning and birth control include abortion, 33% say birth control includes it and 46% say family planning does.
Conclusions and Implications
The authors discuss the implications their findings have for how researchers and others communicate population information to the general public. For example, they conclude that news stories focusing on numbers do not have as great an impact on the public as would presentations of population information in the context of individual- and family-level quality-of-life issues, such as achieving desired family size. The authors also recommend that communicators link population growth and high fertility to issues that Americans care more about, such as economic development, the environment, and women's and children's health. The report is available online at <http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1114<>.--B. Brown
1. Adamson DM et al., How Americans View World Population Issues: A Survey of Public Opinion, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2000.