What we don't know is surprising

  • August 11, 2010
Summer is well known as a time when the news is filled with research surveys and other off-beat items that probably wouldn’t have made the papers if legislatures had been sitting and business leaders weren’t on vacation.

So it’s difficult to say if the latest study on abortion attitudes and public knowledge of the law would have been newsworthy in a busier season. It’s the sort of research more likely to come up in Life Canada’s annual opinion poll or in response to a news event related to abortion. Nevertheless, the findings are interesting, not so much because of the range of opinions on what should be permissible under the law or what government health plans should pay for, but for what the respondents did not know.


Forty-one per cent of respondents believe Canada has an abortion law, and that abortion is allowed only during the first three months of pregnancy. Fifteen per cent believe women could only have abortions within the first trimester, or if the mother’s life is in danger, the pregnancy is a result of rape or if the fetus is diagnosed with serious medical defects. The reality is that Canada has had no abortion law whatsoever since 1988, when the Supreme Court struck down the 1969 law on a challenge from Henry Morgentaler. Only 22 per cent of respondents correctly identified this fact.

Pro-life groups and, interestingly, some pro-abortion groups as well, have commented that the survey indicates a need for more education. It would probably be a mistake to assume it shows anything more than that. Generally consistent with previous polls, about a third say they support the status quo (we’ll assume they  are referring to the correct “status quo”) and only about a third (30 per cent) say it’s time to re-open the debate on abortion. Opinion remains divided on the circumstances in which respondents believe government should pay — 44 per cent say abortion should be covered in all cases, while 39 per cent say only in emergency situations. On all these points, a slightly different question could yield slightly different results.

The significance of this survey is surely in the number of people who are clearly uninformed about the reality of Canada’s non-law on abortion, and probably draw their impression from the legal reality in other countries, which have laws that, generally, are more restrictive at later stages of pregnancy. Practically everyone knows abortion provokes sharp disagreement and heated debate, but it’s an eye-opener to learn that a significant number of people don’t even know where the law stands. It’s a void that makes meaningful debate difficult.

Happily, most summertime news does not concern such deadly serious topics. Here are a few more noteworthy items, along with some patio-chair analysis that has at least a 50-per-cent chance of being right.

  • Your friends could be making you fat. According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine your chances of becoming obese could increase by as much as 171 per cent if a close friend becomes obese. If it’s a more casual friend or acquaintance, your risk is a mere 57 per cent. Lots of things contribute to our choices in diet and exercise. In this case, it’s quite possible that if a group of friends go out for a meal and the first two people order fish and chips or the cheeseburger platter, the others might lose their good intentions about the fruit bowl or the salad plate.
  • Canadians swear more than Britons or Americans. Apparently 56 per cent of us admit to some profanity when chatting with friends, compared to 51 per cent of Britons and 46 per cent of Americans. Workplace cussing was acknowledged by 36 per cent of Canadians, compared to 24 per cent of Britons and 18 per cent of Americans. My interpretation: Either Canadians are more honest or our weather and the misfortunes of our sports teams give us more reasons to swear.
  • A trustworthy face will help you win at cards better than a neutral poker face. Researchers from several American universities collaborated to examine how poker players’ facial expressions affect opponents’ decisions. They found that trustworthiness (soft eyes, relaxed brows and a slight, close-lipped smile) is more effective at fooling opponents than neutral or “untrustworthy” expressions. Since most of us already knew “trustworthy” beats “untrustworthy” in the art of persuasion, let’s hope no one got a research grant for this one.

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