May 21, 2022 - Politics & Policy
Axios Explains: Abortion

Polling shows America in the middle on abortion

Percentage who say they think it should be possible to obtain a legal abortion for any reason
Data: General Social Survey; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

Most Americans in recent polls think Roe v. Wade should be upheld but have no absolute position on abortion, saying it should either be mostly legal or mostly illegal.

The big picture: Years of polling have shown that Americans recognize gray areas in a way that you'd never hear about if you just listened to the politicians and the activists.

  • The closest thing to a consensus view: "It depends. It's not a simple yes or no answer," said Hannah Hartig, a research associate at Pew Research Center.

Between the lines: Here's what the polls really tell us — and what to remember as emotions rise over the likelihood that the Supreme Court is about to overturn Roe v. Wade.

1) Most Americans are in the middle. In Gallup polling going back to 1975, the most common view has been that abortion should be "legal only under certain circumstances" — not that it should be "legal under any circumstances" or "illegal in all circumstances."

  • How broad that middle is depends on the wording of the question and how many options are provided. With Gallup, 48% said it should be legal only under certain circumstances as of May 2021.
  • But in a Pew Research Center survey conducted in March 2022, 71% said abortion should be legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or legal or illegal with some exceptions.
  • "Most people kind of live in the gray zone," said Ipsos pollster and senior vice president Chris Jackson.

2) But majorities still want to uphold Roe v. Wade. When asked about it specifically, 54% in a Washington Post/ABC News poll in April said Roe should be upheld, as did 63% in a Fox News poll April 28-May 1.

  • Both were conducted before Politico reported on the draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe.
  • In Gallup polling going back to 1989, majorities have opposed overturning Roe, and support for overturning it has rarely risen above a third of Americans.

3) It depends on the categories and the questions. As with many polls on other topics, pollsters have found different answers on abortion by combining different groups and wording the questions in different ways.

  • For example, the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List released a poll of battleground states this week that found that 49% held what it defined as a "pro-life" view: 36% said abortion should be "illegal except in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s life," and 13% said it "should always be illegal."
  • Pro-abortion rights groups, however, point to poll findings that suggest many people who are personally against abortion don't want the government to prevent others from getting one. They cite a Washington Post/ABC News question that found 75% agreed that the decision "should be left to the woman and her doctor," compared to 20% who said it should be regulated by law.
  • The bottom line is "who has power and control over these decisions," said Tresa Undem, a pollster who studies public opinion on abortion.

4) Democrats have moved more than Republicans. In a recent summary of abortion polling, Ipsos noted that there wasn't a lot of difference between Democrats and Republicans in the 1970s — but there's now about a 35-point difference in support for the right to obtain a legal abortion for any reason.

  • One reason: a big jump in Democratic support in the past few years, according to data from the General Social Survey.
  • "Democrats have become more liberal in the last decade or so, while Republicans have become a little more conservative," said Jackson.

5) People are weighing multiple questions. One example: nearly half of Americans — 48% — say there are cases where abortion is morally wrong but also should be legal, according to the Pew survey.

  • "For most people, this isn't just a legal question. It's also a moral question," said Besheer Mohamed, a senior researcher at Pew.
  • Another sign, according to the Pew survey: One in three agreed that life begins at conception, "so a fetus is a person with rights" — but also said the abortion decision "should belong solely to the pregnant woman."
  • And in the Fox News poll — the same one that found support for upholding Roe v. Wade — 54% said they'd favor banning abortion in their state after 15 weeks except in medical emergencies. That's a scenario similar to the Mississippi law in the Supreme Court case that could overturn Roe.
  • "There’s a black hole of what ifs," said Undem. "The clearest sense of opinion I get is that people tend to know every situation is different and want government out of these decisions. They are also reluctant to impose their personal beliefs on other people."

6) It's too early to know the election impact. Democrats have always warned that overturning Roe would lead to a political earthquake — but while there are some midterm races that are being closely watched, the polling doesn't suggest a huge shift yet.

  • An Ipsos-Reuters poll taken right after the Supreme Court decision leaked found that two thirds of Americans would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported a law legalizing abortion if Roe is overturned.
  • But it also found that only a third said they'd be angry if Roe were overturned — mainly Democrats (51%) rather than independents (25%) or Republicans (24%).
  • Jackson noted that the actual ruling hasn't come yet and it's still early for most Americans to know what they might do about it in the midterms, or where abortion would rank in comparison to other issues like inflation. "The big question is, is that [anger] sustained ... until the election?"

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