With the news leaked of a possible Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, politicians and commentators of all stripes claimed public opinion was on their side when it came to abortion.
The reality is that the data is murkier and more contradictory than either supporters or opponents of abortion rights care to admit. Partly, that’s because views on abortion are intensely personal, and often paradoxical. Complicating matters further, these views may be tallied differently depending on how the pollster asks the question.
“There is ample evidence that many people are ambivalent about the issue or experience significant cross-pressures in formulating an opinion,” said Scott Keeter, a senior survey adviser to the Pew Research Center. “These realities make it quite difficult to sum up abortion attitudes in one or two sentences or with one or two questions.”
Broadly, views of abortion have been largely stable over time
Prior to the Roe decision in 1973, abortion was illegal in many states, but states were gradually choosing to legalize it. In a 7-2 ruling, the court found that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment protects the right to privacy from state action, including a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. While subsequent rulings allowed states to impose some restrictions on abortion, they could not outlaw it entirely.
The Roe decision said that during the first trimester, the woman had full discretion to abort. During the second trimester, the state could regulate, but not outlaw, abortions. In the third trimester, the government could regulate or outlaw abortions, with some exceptions for medical reasons. A subsequent case that was decided in 1992, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, generally upheld the right to an abortion but moved away from strict adherence to the trimester system. It moved to a system by which restrictions on abortion would be allowed unless they were determined to place an “undue burden” on the woman seeking an abortion.
Overturning Roe, as the leaked draft would do, would get rid of the national right to an abortion and leave it up to each state to decide on what its policy should be. Some states have already acted to protect abortion access by passing their own laws, while others have adopted “trigger” laws that would severely restrict abortion if Roe were overturned.
Gallup has been asking the same question about abortion almost since Roe was decided: “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?”
Over nearly five decades, “legal under any circumstances” has generally attracted between 20 percent and 30 percent support, while “illegal in all circumstances” has pulled between 10 percent and 20 percent support.
The top choice has always been “legal only under certain circumstances,” which has generally polled between 50 percent and 60 percent. There is no discernible long-term trend in any direction.
The results on other types of abortion-related questions, by Gallup and other polling groups, have shown similar degrees of consistency over time.
“Attitudes on nearly all abortion questions have been remarkably stable for decades,” said Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
Different questions tend to provoke different answers
For pollsters, “abortion is an incredibly difficult issue to measure,” since the results can be affected by question wording, question order and other variables, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire survey center.
For instance, in the wake of the draft ruling’s leak, abortion-rights advocates have touted polls showing Americans’ high rates of opposition to overturning Roe.
Surveys taken by four pollsters since 2020 have asked whether Roe should be kept or overturned, and each found between 54 percent and 63 percent favored keeping the decision on the books, compared to 27 percent to 31 percent who preferred overturning it. That’s basically a 2-to-1 edge for keeping Roe.
That seems like strong support. But when asked a different question — should abortion be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases — support for abortion rights comes across as more nuanced.
If support for having abortion legal in all cases and legal in most cases is grouped together, the results in three recent surveys range from 59 percent to 62 percent. That’s similar to support for keeping Roe in place.
But if you group together the two middle categories — those who accept the need for some abortion rights along with a desire to limit access — these results add up to 54 percent to 60 percent.
The middle category “seems to be where opinion is,” Bowman said.
The polling results suggest that Americans lack a nuanced view of what Roe permits and what would happen if it were overturned.
“Every question I have seen that asks whether the Supreme Court should overturn Roe shows a majority against,” Bowman said. Despite that, she said, “Americans have always been willing to put significant restrictions on its use.”
Another seeming paradox pops up in a recent Fox News poll. On the one hand, 63 percent of respondents said Roe should be kept in place, compared with 27 percent who said it should be overturned. But a narrow majority of 50 percent supported laws that would ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, except in the case of medical emergency. A slightly larger majority of 54 percent supported laws that would ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy except in a medical emergency. Either policy would be considered an aggressive restriction on abortion.
The reason for an abortion and the timing of a procedure can play a major role in how people think about the issue.
Some exceptions to hypothetical abortion bans are widely accepted, such as access to an abortion after rape or incest; others are not as widely supported. Consistently, the support for access to abortion drops depending on whether the abortion would be done in the third trimester, rather than the first.
Some of the most detailed data come from a 2018 Gallup poll. In the first trimester, Gallup found, support for allowing a legal abortion was overwhelming in the case of danger to the woman (83 percent) and in the event of rape or incest (77 percent). Majorities also supported access to a first-trimester abortion for a child facing a life-threatening illness (67 percent) and if the child was mentally disabled (56 percent).
Support, however, dropped by between 8 and 25 percentage points if the scenario required a third-trimester abortion. And in either the first or third trimester, only a minority of respondents said they would support access to abortion for a fetus with Down syndrome or if the woman wanted an abortion for “any reason.”
Polls offering specific scenarios will often elicit a different response than generalities, said Janine A. Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas. And this may track with the gender of the respondent, she said.
“Similar portions of men and women tend to respond affirmatively to broad questions like ‘should Roe be overturned’ or ‘should abortion be illegal,’” she said. “But when you present real-world scenarios like a case of rape or incest, if the fetus is viable, if carrying the pregnancy to term will harm the patient’s future fertility or bring other health risks, if the patient has unsafe living conditions, if the patient is financially unstable, if the patient has as many children as desired, etc., women are likely to peel off that hard line faster than men.”
People have complicated views about abortion
Ultimately, analyzing abortion-related poll questions is tricky because people are honestly conflicted about their views on abortion. Views on abortion are “complicated or ambivalent,” Bowman said.
A team of Notre Dame University researchers conducted 217 in-depth interviews with Americans across six states in 2019. “Abortion attitudes are more complex than survey statistics suggest,” they concluded. “Survey summaries can be misleading and should be interpreted with caution.”
Often, the researchers found, “surveys miss the ways that Americans offer disclaimers and caveats, contradict themselves, hedge their responses, change their minds, and think through things in real time. Most Americans, moreover, do not hold bipolar views toward abortion but multidimensional ones.”
The challenge with abortion polling is two-fold: First, how do survey respondents frame and summarize their own views, and second, how do the pollsters interpret those responses?
“How do you interpret the middle response categories?” Smith said. “Is the respondent for abortion only for a ‘good’ reason, or for most abortions?”
Bowman said that polling may never fully capture Americans’ views on abortion.
“My gut tells me that when people hold contradictory or complicated views about an issue such as abortion, most pull away from the debate,” she said. “They don’t want to resolve, or see the need to resolve, the contradictory impulses in their thinking. That leaves the playing field to the activists on both sides who don’t really capture public opinion, but claim to.”