Public Attitudes Toward Abortion

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Public Attitudes Toward Abortion

Like all statistics, public opinion polls should be viewed cautiously. The way a question is phrased influences the respondents' answers. Many other factors may also influence a response in ways that are difficult to determine. For instance, a respondent might never have thought of the issue until asked, or he or she might be giving the pollster the answer he or she thinks the pollster wants to hear. Organizations that survey people's opinions do not claim absolute accuracy; their findings are approximate snapshots of the attitudes of the nation at a given time. The surveys presented here have been selected from numerous polls taken on abortion. A typical, well-conducted survey claims accuracy to about plus or minus three percentage points.


A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted in July 2003 asked, "Do you believe that human life begins at conception, or once the baby may be able to survive outside the mother's womb with medical assistance, or when the baby is actually born?" Of all respondents, 55% believed life began at conception; 23% felt life began when the fetus could survive outside the womb, 13% believed it began "at birth," and 9% were "not sure."

The Harris Interactive Election 2000 survey, conducted April 4-10, 2000, asked adults who had previously identified themselves as being pro-choice or pro-life, "When does life begin?" A vast majority (88%) of the pro-life group responded that life begins at conception. The pro-choice group's opinions about when life begins were much more divided than the opinions of the pro-life group. For instance, the largest proportion of pro-choice respondents (38%) said that life begins when the fetus can survive outside the mother's uterus (after the point of viability). Only 23% of those identifying themselves as pro-choice felt that life begins at conception. In addition, 15% of pro-choice respondents said that life begins at birth; 8% were not sure; and 14% responded that life begins "once brainwaves or motion are observed from the fetus." Just 7% of the pro-life group agreed with this final statement.


In 1973, a few months after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, a Harris Poll asked, "In 1973, the Supreme Court decided that state laws which made it illegal for a woman to have an abortion up to three months of pregnancy were unconstitutional, and that the decision on whether a woman should have an abortion up to three months of pregnancy should be left to the woman and her doctor to decide. In general, do you favor or oppose this part of the U.S. Supreme Court decision making abortions up to three months of pregnancy legal?" Half (52%) of the respondents favored the decision, whereas 42% opposed it. The remaining persons were unsure or refused to respond. In 1998, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Roe, the Harris Poll asked the same question. The proportion of those who supported the decision was higher, 57%, while the proportion of those against the decision was about the same, 41%. In recent years support for Roe has declined. In a 2005 Harris poll the percentage of those favoring the ruling dropped to 1973 levels at 52%, and the proportion who opposed the ruling rose to 47%. Only 1% were unsure.

A 2005 Gallup poll yielded a slightly different result than did the Harris Poll when it asked this question: "Would you like to see the Supreme Court overturn its 1973 Roe versus Wade decision concerning abortion, or not?" An overwhelming majority of respondents63%would not like to see the Supreme Court overturn its decision. Only 28% would.

Each year or two from 1975 to 2005, Gallup Poll researchers asked Americans this question: "Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?" Over this thirty-year span, American opinions about abortion have vacillated somewhat. (See Figure 9.1.) In 1975 about 22% of Americans thought abortions should be legal under any circumstances. After peaking at 33% in 1991 and 1992, support for this idea fell to about the 1975 level at 23% in 2005. In 1975 about half (54%) thought abortions should be legal only under certain circumstances. In 1995 59% supported this idea, but support fell after that. In 2005 54% of Americans thought abortions should be legal only under certain circumstancesthe same proportion as in 1975. In 1975 21% of respondents thought abortions should never be legal. After vacillating between that high of 21% and a low of 16% over three decades, in 2005 the "never" response returned to the 1975 level of 21%.

During Which Stage of Pregnancy Should Abortion Be Legal?

The Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade permits abortion throughout pregnancy, but it allows restrictions to be put on its use in the second and third trimesters. In 2000 the Harris Poll surveyed Americans to find out when they thought abortions should be illegal. Respondents had identified themselves as pro-life or pro-choice. They all were asked the question, "In general, at which of the following points, if any, do you believe abortions should be illegal or not allowed?" Most respondentsboth pro-choice and pro-lifefelt that there should be some restrictions on abortion. Of the pro-choice respondents, 24% felt abortion should be legal in all circumstances, with no restrictions.

Three-quarters of people identifying themselves pro-life felt that abortion should be illegal "anytime after conception," whereas only 3% of people identifying themselves as pro-choice agreed. The pro-choice group was more likely to consider abortion an illegal act the closer it occurred to the full term of the pregnancy. Of pro-choice respondents, 15% felt that abortion should be illegal "after motion or brainwaves" have been observed in the fetus, and 48% said that abortion should be illegal at the stage in which the fetus would be likely to survive outside the womb.

In Harris polls in 1998 and 2005 respondents (not separated as to pro-choice or pro-life) were asked, "In general, do you think abortion should generally be legal or generally illegal during the following stages of pregnancy?" In February 2005 60% responded that abortion should be legal during the first three months of pregnancy. A similar proportion of those surveyed in 1998 (63%) responded the same way. A much smaller percentage of respondents in both polls felt that abortion should be legal during the second trimester of pregnancy26% in both 2005 and 1998. Only 12% in 2005 and 13% in 1998 felt that abortion should be legal in the last trimester of pregnancy. This is comparable to the percentage reported in a 2003 ABC News/Washington Post poll: only 11% felt that abortion should be legal once a woman is at least six months pregnant.

Under What Specific Situations Should Abortion Be Legal?

For many people abortion is a difficult issuepermissible in some situations but not in others. Several questions in a Gallup Poll repeated over the years address the issue of certain exceptions that would make abortion permissible or illegal in the respondents' view. In the 2003 poll 88% of respondents reported that abortion should be legal "to save [the] woman's life"; 82% said they support abortion "to save [the] woman's health"; and 81% support it "in cases of rape and incest." These ideas had slightly less support in the 2000 Gallup poll. Most of those polled in 2000 agreed that abortion should be legal when the pregnant woman's life (84%), physical health (81%), or mental health (64%) is in danger or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest (78%). In 2003 and 2000 about half (54% and 53%, respectively) agreed that abortion should be legal when there is evidence that the baby may be physically or mentally impaired. However, a June 2003 Gallup Poll revealed that approval often depends on when in pregnancy the abortion would be performed.


One of the first items on the presidential agenda of George W. Bush when he took over the office in January 2001 was to reinstate the "Mexico City Policy," which had been reversed by the previous president, Bill Clinton. The Mexico City Policy, put into action by President Ronald Reagan, had been enforced by executive order for almost a decade prior to Clinton rescinding it. It was a policy that the United States would no longer support private family planning groups overseas that performed or promoted abortion. With that action, Bush made his stance on abortion clear. (See Chapter 3.)

In the following month (February 2001) the Gallup Organization asked Americans, "How important a priority do you think abortion will be for the Bush administration?" (They chose top, high, or low priority or not a priority at all.) The results showed that 14% thought abortion would be a "top" priority, and 34% thought it would be a "high" priority. Despite Bush's action to reinstate the "Mexico City Policy," the largest proportion of respondents (38%) thought abortion would be a "low" priority during Bush's presidency. When asked what is most likely to happen to abortion laws during the Bush administration, 65% felt abortion laws would be made more strict, 26% thought the laws would not be more strict, and 6% felt that all abortions would be made illegal.

A May 2004 Gallup Poll revealed that "abortion views in the United States are strongly related to one's politics and level of religious commitment. Bush's political alliesself-identified conservatives and regular church-goerstend to favor limited (if any) abortion rights, while those in the middle and left of the political spectrum have more permissive views on abortion."

A January 2003 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll asked those surveyed if abortion was a top legislative priority to them. Sixty percent responded that it was "moderately, not that important." By December 2004 the same percentage of respondents thought abortion was a legislative priority. At that time a Gallup poll asked those surveyed how important it was to them that the president and Congress deal with the issue of abortion in the next year. Nineteen percent of Americans thought it was extremely important and 41% thought it was extremely/very important.


In October 2003 the Gallup researchers asked Americans if the U.S. government should make the partial-birth abortion (late abortion) procedure illegal or keep it legal. (For background, see "Partial-Birth Abortion" in Chapter 2.) Of respondents, 68% said it should be illegal and 25% said it should be legal. The results of a January 2003 Gallup poll and a July 2003 ABC News poll varied little: 70% and 62%, respectively, would support a ban on the procedure, and 25% and 20%, respectively, felt it should be legal.

The 2003 poll results show a slight but steady increase from previous years in support for banning partial-birth abortion. Three years prior, in October 2000, Gallup researchers asked Americans how they would vote, if it were possible to do so, on a law that would make partial-birth abortion illegal (except when necessary to save the life of the mother). Sixty-four percent responded that they would vote against the procedure. In 1996 57% of Americans supported making partial-birth abortions illegal.

On November 5, 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act into law. However, legal challenges to the law's constitutionality have postponed its implementation. As of mid-2005, the Bush administration planned to ask the Supreme Court to uphold the partial-birth abortion ban.


Age and Attitude toward Abortion

Older Americans are more likely than younger Americans to support restrictions on legal abortion, according to the 2003 ABC News/Washington Post poll. A Gallup poll conducted from January 2000 to May 2001 revealed the same fact. In the Gallup poll 62% of those age sixty-five and older supported major restrictions on abortion, while only 55% of those in the eighteen to twenty-nine age bracket and 54% of those in the thirty to sixty-four age bracket did. Thus, young Americans appear to have more liberal attitudes toward abortion, while those sixty-five and older appear to have more conservative attitudes.

Education Level and Attitude toward Abortion

Better-educated Americans are more likely to support legal abortion than less-well-educated Americans, according to the 2003 ABC News/Washington Post poll. A 2003 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll got similar results. This poll showed that college graduates (35%) are more likely than noncollege graduates (24%) to say that abortion should be legal. In addition, a Gallup poll conducted from January 2000 to May 2001 reached a similar conclusion. It showed that as education increases, support for major restrictions on abortion decreases. While 62% of those with a high school education or less supported major restrictions on abortion, only 40% with post-graduate degrees supported major restrictions.

Religious Beliefs/Affiliation and Attitude toward Abortion

According to the 2003 ABC News/Washington Post poll, Americans who profess no religious affiliation are more likely to support legal abortion than Americans who identify themselves as belonging to a spiritual group. Gallup, in describing the results of a May 2001 poll, calls the difference in attitude toward abortion between religious and nonreligious Americans "sharp." Results of that poll found that more than two-thirds of "very religious" Americans (68%) think legal abortion should be limited to a few cases or none at all. This is almost exactly the same as the percentage of nonreligious Americans who think abortion should be legal in all or most cases (71%). Gallup continues: "Previous research by Gallup on this subject shows that this difference in abortion opinion among people of various levels of religious commitment holds true whether looking at Catholics, Protestants, or born-again Christians. The most deeply religious people in each faith are always much more inclined to the pro-life position than those who are less devout."

Protestants and Catholics express similar views on abortion. In an April 2005 Gallup poll Catholics who attended church weekly and Protestants who did the same were asked if they found abortion morally wrong. About three-quarters of each group answered "yes" to that question: 74% of Catholics and 78% of Protestants. The general population of Catholics and non-Catholics (neither of whom necessarily attend church weekly) express similar views on abortion as well. When asked if they find abortion morally acceptable, 37% of the Catholics responded "yes" as did 39% of the non-Catholics.

Political Affiliations and Attitude toward Abortion

A May 2004 Gallup poll determined that 77% of those who identify themselves as politically conservative believe abortion should be legal in only a few (52%) or in no (25%) circumstances. At the same time nearly half (47%) of those who identify themselves as liberal believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances. A 2003 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll also reports that more Democrats (a group usually identified as liberal) than Republicans (a group usually identified as conservative) think that abortion should be legal.

A Gallup poll conducted from January 2000 to May 2001 reveals data consistent with these findings. Support for major abortion restrictions were higher among respondents who identified themselves as moderate rather than liberal: 70% of moderates supported major restrictions, compared with 33% of liberals. Likewise, the results of the poll show that a smaller percentage of Democrats (49%) favor major restrictions on abortion while a larger percentage of Republicans (68%) favor such restrictions.

A May 2005 Gallup poll asked a question about the "moral acceptability" of abortion. Less than one-third of Republicans (29%) found abortion morally acceptable, while half (51%) of Democrats found this practice morally acceptable.

Gender and Attitude toward Abortion

A person's age, education level, religious beliefs, and political affiliation play a major role in their opinions about abortion. Those who are older, less educated, devoutly religious, and politically conservative are more likely to believe that abortion should be restricted. Differences in opinions between men and women about abortion are not as clear cut.

According to both a 2003 ABC News/Washington Post poll and a 2003 Gallup poll, gender seems to have a small effect on opinion regarding abortion. A slightly greater percentage of women (58%) than men (54%) supported abortion being legal in almost all cases. Men and women also agreed on the various conditions in which abortion should or should not be legal. However, these polling results were not supported by an April 2004 poll"Abortion a More Powerful Issue for Women"conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. According to the Pew poll, "33% of women say they strongly oppose more restriction on abortion, compared with 26% of men. On the other side of the issue, 19% of women strongly favor greater restrictions, compared with 15% of men. Taken together, the majority of women (52% overall) feel strongly about the issue one way or the other, while only 41% of men say the same."

Pro-Choice/Pro-Life Identification

In examining trends from 1996 to 2005 within Gallup polls and with the consistent question, "With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?," those identifying themselves as pro-choice range from a low of 47% in October 2000 to a high of 55% in February of 2001only months apart. Those identifying themselves as pro-life during that same time span range from a low of 37% in March 1996 to a high of 45% in October 2000.

Although percentages fluctuate over the years, those identifying themselves as pro-choice always made up a greater percentage of survey respondents in the Gallup polls than did those identifying themselves as pro-life. The difference in percentage points between the two groups, from 1996 to 2005, ranges from a low of only two percentage points (in October 2000) to a high of nineteen percentage points (in March 1996).