Angus Reid and the ‘False Dilemma’ Fallacy

By Joyce Arthur

February 15, 2012 (originally published in The Mark)

It is upsetting when supposedly secular agencies promote anti-abortion politics while pretending to be neutral and unbiased. Such is the case with pollster Angus Reid, which conducts polls in many countries around the world on political and sociological topics.

Angus Reid in Canada recently published a poll on abortion with two misleading questions that clearly rendered the answers invalid. Yet the results were widely reported by the media as if they actually meant something. The two questions (and their corresponding available answers) are as follows:

  1. Thinking about abortion, which one of these statements comes closest to your own point of view?
    a. There should be laws which outline when a woman can have an abortion in Canada.
    b. There should be no laws on this matter – a woman should have the unrestricted right to have an abortion at any time up to the moment of birth.
    c. Not sure.
  2. One issue that has raised debate recently concerns the use of abortion as a means of gender selection. In some cultures and groups, female fetuses are aborted because of a preference for males. Thinking about this, which one of these statements comes closest to your own point of view?
    a. There should be laws which outline whether a woman can have an abortion based solely on the gender of the fetus.
    b. There should be no laws on this matter – a woman should have the unrestricted right to have an abortion in any circumstance.
    c. Not sure.

A fatal flaw occurs across both questions. Other than “not sure,” only two possible answers are provided – to have, or not to have, laws on abortion. This is known as a “false dilemma” fallacy, which is committed when someone is asked to choose between only two options when other options are available. It’s difficult to imagine how the supposedly trained pollsters at Angus Reid can commit such a basic error, given the critical importance of presenting unbiased and non-leading questions to obtain meaningful results.

In Question 1, Angus Reid sets up this false choice between “a law or no law” for abortion in general, even though both options are poor choices and framing them this way represents misinformed anti-choice propaganda. Where is the third option representing reality? Medical practices in Canada are regulated not by criminal or civil laws, but by policies, codes of ethics, clinical protocols, and the medical discretion of health-care professionals. Canada has successfully and responsibly managed abortion practice using just these tools since 1988, which proves that no special laws are needed for abortion. Without any laws, our abortion rate has more or less been in steady decline since 1997, and is even beginning to approach the low rates of western Europe. But by creating a “false dilemma” fallacy, Angus Reid (whether intentionally or not) promotes the idea that abortion laws are an obvious and necessary choice, pushing that dangerous assumption onto the public and reinforcing the stigma of abortion.

Option 1b is especially misleading, as it implies that Canadian women currently have the “unrestricted right to have an abortion at any time up to the moment of birth,” which is simply not true. Only about half a per cent of abortions in Canada occur after 20 weeks. Such abortions are generally done only if the woman’s life is endangered or in cases of severe fetal abnormalities where the fetus cannot survive after birth. Almost all abortions occur before the end of the second trimester (24 weeks), and none at “the moment of birth.”

It’s absurd and insulting to imply that women can have abortions when they are nine months pregnant, as if they impulsively change their minds and pop into an abortion clinic on their way to give birth. It’s also a slur against doctors, who adhere to medical policies and protocols that effectively restrict abortions after 20 weeks (except in critical cases).

Remarkably, despite the fact that the question alarmingly implied that women can have abortions “up to the moment of birth,” 37 per cent of respondents still chose the option of having an unrestricted right to abortion. This reveals the astonishing strength of pro-choice sentiment in Canada: Consider how many more people would have selected the “no law” option if the question had been accurately presented.

When answering Question 2, 60 per cent of Canadians chose Option A – that there should be laws controlling sex-selection abortion. Given a choice between passing laws or doing nothing at all, it’s surprising the percentage wasn’t even higher. But what if the public had been presented with a third option – public education and community initiatives? Such steps should start with research. Contrary to Angus Reid’s offensive implication that “some cultures and groups” do it all the time, we don’t even know if sex-selection abortion happens much in Canada. I doubt that 60 per cent of Canadians want laws to address a problem we’re not even sure exists. If we find it does exist, we can then raise awareness on the negative effects of sex selection and work with affected communities to find ways to challenge cultural practices and promote the value of girls. The implication that criminal law is the best, or only, way to deal with the issue of sex-selection abortion (as the only other option, according to Angus Reid, is to do nothing) is actually a covert way of attacking abortion rights in general, and another indication that Angus Reid, consciously or not, has become an anti-choice instrument.

For both questions, the number of respondents answering “not sure” was fairly high – 12 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively. This may indicate that people were confused or uneasy with the options presented. The level of uncertainty among respondents would likely have been lower if the questions had been responsibly worded, with more options to choose from.

This is not the first poll of this nature that Angus Reid has released – I found similar flaws in its poll from August 2010. It appears the agency hasn’t learned its lesson.

It is extremely worrisome that an agency that carries out “public opinion polls that are consistently quoted in media outlets around the world, and serve as the basis for policy, campaign and business directives” would conduct polls with seriously flawed lines of questioning. Such methodologies are destined to produce biased and inaccurate results, which do nothing to serve the Canadian populace. Before putting our trust in this organization and the numbers it produces, we must demand its accountability to a much higher standard.