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The Effect of Question Wording on Preferences for Prenatal Genetic Testing and Abortion

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Principal Investigator(s):

Eleanor Singer
University of Michigan
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Mick P. Couper
University of Michigan
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Sample size: 1500
Field period: 12/12/2011-04/13/2012



Preferences for abortion in case of fetal defect, on the other hand, showed a dAt intervals since 1990, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked a series of four questions inquiring into knowledge of genetic testing and attitudes toward prenatal testing and abortion, most recently in 2010. Preferences for prenatal testing for genetic defects are relatively stable over this time period, with about two thirds of respondents expressing such a preference. ecline, from 41.1% in 1990 and 41.7% in 1996 to 28.7% in 2004 and 31% in 2010. From 1990 through 2010, the questions about prenatal testing and abortion were framed in terms of “baby”—for example, “Today, tests are being developed that make it possible to detect serious genetic defects before a baby is born. But so far, it is impossible either to treat or to correct most of them. If you/your partner were pregnant, would you want (her) to have a test to find out if the baby has any serious genetic defects?” After the 2010 results were released, some researchers questioned whether the answers might have been different had the questions been framed in terms of “fetus” rather than “baby.” In the current climate it seemed possible that the word “fetus” would carry a more abstract, impersonal connotation than “baby” and might therefore lead to more frequent expressions of preferences for prenatal testing and abortion. To resolve this issue and provide guidance for future administrations of these questions in the GSS, we designed a question-wording experiment fielded by TESS.


"Fetus" will lead to more frequent expression of preferences for prenatal testing and abortion.

Experimental Manipulations:

The two questions about prenatal testing and abortion were administered in split ballot form to random half samples of a TESS survey (fielded by KN to a web panel), with half receiving the questions in terms of "baby" and half in terms of "fetus."

Key Dependent Variables:

Marginal frequencies of expressed preferences for testing and abortion for each version of the two questions, as well as tests of the effects of interactions between demographic characteristics and question wording on these outcomes.

Summary of Findings:

This question-wording experiment was designed to see whether using the term “fetus” rather than “baby” to ask questions would alter public preferences about prenatal testing for genetic defects and for abortion if a test revealed such defects. We found a significant zero-order difference in responses to the question about genetic testing, with those asked about a “fetus” 5 percentage points less likely to say they would want such a test. No significant differences were found in responses to the question about abortion.

Although question wording made relatively small differences in the sample as a whole, those differences became substantial in some subgroups. For genetic testing, the effect of question wording interacts significantly with education and religion; for abortion, question wording appears to vary by race. age. and ideology.

The word “fetus” had originally not been used on the GSS because of a belief that it would be more difficult to understand than “baby” and that this effect would be more pronounced among older and less well educated respondents. In order to test this hypothesis, we examined item nonresponse to the two question wordings on the 2012 TESS survey. Item nonresponse to that survey was very small—fewer than 2% to most questions—and there was no consistent pattern of item nonresponse by question wording.

Additional Information:

We are continuing to examine responses to the two open-ended questions to see whether they indicate better comprehension of one term rather than the other.


We will present a report of the study to the 2013 AAPOR conference in Boston in May, but have not yet finalized the presentation. We are also working on a research note presenting the results.

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