What the Polls Say (and Don’t Say) About Abortion

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With the U.S. Supreme Court prepared to overturn Roe v. Wade, does the expected ruling reflect the views of most Americans?

It’s not an easy question to answer. Decades of surveys have tried to pin down what the majority of Americans think about abortion, but the data remains murky if you are looking for a clear succinct answer. 

When Politico earlier this month leaked the draft of the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, we at Post Alley had a lively discussion that raised different takes on what polling shows about abortion views. Is it religion or gender that is most likely to determine your stance? Or age? Or education? Or income? Or where you live? How accurate overall is the polling on abortion?

If you search through reputable polls (those done by independent reliable trusted organizations), the trends over half a century show that most Americans support legal abortion – at least in some cases.

That’s where it begins to get complicated. Can a poll account for every possible case that may prompt someone to seek an abortion? Rape, incest, life of the mother? At how many weeks in each case? And age of the woman – minor or adult? 

Evans Witt is the former President & Chief Executive Officer at Princeton Survey Research Associates International and began polling in the 1970s for the Associated Press (where we had worked together). When I reached out to ask him about the challenges of polling on abortion, he said they derive from the nature of the debate itself. 

“It’s always been very very hard largely because abortion is a hard issue. No one question can possibly give you a picture of what people think,” Witt told me during a recent phone interview. “It’s one of those public policy issues that cuts across a whole bunch of dimensions and not in ways that are simple. It’s not about party, it’s not about liberal versus conservative, and it’s not about men and women and never has been.

“We demand simplicity these days,” Witt continued. “You are for or against, Right to Life or Pro Choice. Abortion is not that kind of issue.”

A key challenge for pollsters is how to phrase the question. Do you ask: “Do you approve or disapprove of the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion?” Or, “Do you think abortion should be banned?” Or, “Do you think abortion should be banned except in cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother?” Or, “Do you think abortion should be banned except in cases of danger to the life of the mother?” And so on. There are many ways to ask about abortion, and different questions get different answers.

We are talking about something that can be viewed as a moral issue or a legal issue or a public policy issue or all of the above. In the wake of reactions to overturning Roe v. Wade, some of its most ardent foes are celebrating but also are now conflicted about next steps. They wanted to end legal abortion, but do they want to see women locked up for terminating a pregnancy? Did they want an end to all abortions, or did they support exceptions for rape or incest or for saving the life of the mother?

Supporters of a woman’s right to decide for herself whether to terminate a pregnancy are not anti-life. They are pro reproductive justice and pro saving the lives of women who die from back alley abortions when there are no legal options. Most opponents of a woman’s right to choose are not consistently against abortion in all cases. 

Witt points out that pollsters need to limit the number of questions they ask in the same survey. With a subject like abortion, only asking a couple of questions means you can’t tease out many differences.

Given that the polls show a majority of Americans want abortion to be legal in some cases, it makes you wonder why Congress couldn’t codify Roe v. Wade. As my Post Alley colleague Nick Licata pointed out: “When a poll shows whatever most voters want, they often miss the most significant factor: converting that poll into Congressional votes by district or state. That’s because most of those favoring pro-choice are not evenly distributed across the country. Instead, they are concentrated in the most populist areas, states, or cities. “

At the state level , the correlation between voters’ views and legislation tends to be more in lockstep. Red states are passing measures criminalizing abortion, and blue states are passing laws to keep it safe and legal.

As Politico reported, “At least 23 states have pre-Roe abortion bans still on the books or have passed so-called trigger laws that would sharply limit access to the procedure if Roe were to be overturned, according to a tally by the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights advocacy and research group.” 

When the New York Times analyzed large national surveys taken over the last decade, not surprisingly it found that: “In the states poised to put in new restrictions on abortion, people tend to say that abortion should be mostly or fully illegal…In the 13 states that have enacted so-called trigger laws, which would immediately or very quickly outlaw abortion if Roe were overturned, 43 percent of adults on average say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 52 percent say it should be illegal in most or all cases.”

As expected, the reverse is true in states like Washington where the majority of voters support keeping abortion legal, and a law takes effect next month that expands protections by prohibiting the state from taking any action against an individual seeking to end their pregnancy or for assisting someone who is pregnant in obtaining an abortion. 

Post Alley writer Jean Godden recently explored the contrast on abortion between blue Washington and neighboring red Idaho, and I share her dismay that “it is tragic that nearly 50 years after the Roe v. Wade decision, reproductive rights remain under attack in two dozen U. S. states.” If you want to know more about what states are doing, check out this snapshot from USAFacts.

With access to legal and safe abortion becoming more and more a question of where you live, national polls continue to show that most people support allowing some abortions. As Witt told me: “There are enough current respectable polls and polls over time that you can develop a picture of what Americans think about abortion, but it’s a complicated picture and has shifted over time.”

Here are a few of the recent polls:

PEW Research Center:
“While public support for legal abortion has fluctuated some in two decades of polling, it has remained relatively stable over the past several years. Currently, 61% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37% say it should be illegal in all or most cases.”

PEW in its poll this month also found that: “Majorities of both men and women express support for legal abortion, though women are somewhat more likely than men to hold this view (63% vs. 58%).”

NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll National Poll:

A poll taken after the leaked Supreme Court draft ruling found that “64% of Americans do not think Roe v. Wade should be overturned, while 33% think it should. Similarly, a 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation Survey showed 27% supported overturning the ruling, and 69% opposed it. Current opinion falls along party lines, but even 34% of Republicans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade.” This survey probed some of the nuances like what exceptions people might support and found that: “Even 52% of Democrats think limits should be put on abortion. Only 17% of Republicans believe abortion should never be permitted.”

The Economist

“Views on abortion have been fairly stable over time. Big majorities favour legal abortion in cases of rape or health risks. Since 2002 the share of participants in the General Social Survey, a large poll, who say abortion, for any reason, should be legal has climbed from 40% to 54%.” The article also cites a YouGov poll that found: “The gender gap in views on abortion is modest, at six percentage points. Religion and race, in contrast, account for up to 65 points.”

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Linda Kramer Jenning is an independent journalist who moved to Bainbridge Island after several decades reporting from Washington, D.C. She taught journalism at Georgetown University and is former Washington editor of Glamour.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Well, let’s walk this back a step. It’s hard to sort out what people think the law ought to be, because the reality is pretty complicated, am I right? There are all these possible circumstances, and how can a couple questions get at the nuances of their positions?

    OK, forgetting for the moment about everyone’s positions, what kind of a law are we hoping for here?

    Isn’t it true, that as we consider the range of possibilities … the end of the range we all more or less understand, is the one most of us more or less agree on? And as we move into the area where there is less agreement, that’s also where the decisions made in actual cases are driven by more complex specific circumstances – where popular opinion is naturally out of its depth as a guide to justice?

  2. Interesting piece. The polling is indeed mixed, as are the views of the vast center of the electorate. That NPR poll that Linda cites is very revealing. And those “middle of the road” voters are inclined to punish at the polls whichever side of the debate happens to appear most extreme at the moment.

    The post-Roe news polling is fairly clear that the Supreme Court’s move to wipe out Roe is going to help Democrats in the midterms, though it’s an open question by how much (and it’s likely it’s not going to be enough to overcome all of the other factors working against Democrats). In blue states like Washington, even with Roe potentially gone a lot of voters still don’t believe they’ll be directly impacted, because abortion rights are seemingly entrenched in those places.

    But even if abortion doesn’t play a decisive role in the upcoming election, there’s no question that Republicans are playing with a political hand grenade. It’s one thing (politically) to bar or sharply restrict abortion in red states in a post-Roe environment, but if Republicans take control of Congress in November the pressure from their energized religious right base to push forward a national abortion ban is going to be very intense. Suddenly the “get rid of the filibuster” talk will shift to the polarized partisans on the other side. If they really do start to threaten abortion rights everywhere, that’s when the proverbial shit is really going to hit the fan.

    Intractable division over slavery precipitated the last American civil war. I don’t think it’s complete hyperbole to say that a national abortion ban, if Republicans were to successfully enact one, could well precipitate the next one.

  3. The abortion issue now is even more complicated than the nuanced questions, which is complicated enough. Nick Licata is right: the national polls don’t mean much. Even statewide polls don’t tell the real story. Opinion varies widely by community. If the Supremes kick the question back to the states, which overturning Roe will do, then the question will be decided by state legislatures, meaning it could be a significant issue in legislative races all across the country this fall. Any candidate for any state legislature had better have their position on this issue sharpened.

  4. Polls on this issue are largely worthless. They change with and are driven by the news cycle. Pre leaked opinion or after the leak? Good for pollsters and poll addicts but this law aside, this is an issue that is answered by personal values, cultural background and so much more.
    I guess I am a libertarian on this issue: Both the Federal and State governments should stay out of it. It is a personal choice for the woman and those she loves and trusts. Not informed by “polling”

  5. Given the questions about polling on abortion, it will be interesting as Sandeep says to gauge the impact of overturning Roe v, Wade on upcoming elections. Will candidates campaign taking positions based on what the polling says? Are we already seeing that in many cases? There are other past polls that showed that abortion was not the top issue that determined how voters cast ballots. Will that now change? Will a candidates stand on abortion be more important to voters than the economy, climate change, safety?

  6. Thank you, Linda, for sharing your research.
    As I read the poll results you’ve documented, another less divisive wording keeps nagging at me. I would like to see a poll ask this:
    Should physicians be legally entitled to make the decision on whether or not a pregnancy needs to end?
    That is a question that lends itself to a legal/legislative answer.

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