Why abortion polls hide the true complexity of what Americans think

With news of a possible Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, politicians and commentators on all sides claimed that public opinion was on their side when it came to abortion.

The reality is that the data is murkier and more contradictory than proponents and opponents of abortion rights care to admit. This is partly because views on abortion are extremely personal and often paradoxical. To complicate matters further, these views may be counted 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-pressure in forming an opinion,” said Scott Keeter, senior investigative adviser at the Pew Research Center. “These realities make it quite difficult to summarize attitudes toward abortion in one or two sentences or one or two questions.”

Overall, views on abortion have remained largely stable over time

Prior to the Roe decision in 1973, abortion was illegal in many states, but states gradually chose to legalize it. In a 7-2 decision, the court found that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment protects privacy rights against state action, including a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion . Although subsequent rulings allowed states to impose certain restrictions on abortion, they could not ban it completely.

The Roe decision stated that during the first trimester, the woman was free to abort. During the second trimester, the state could regulate, but not prohibit, abortions. In the third trimester, the government could regulate or ban abortions, with some exceptions for medical reasons. A later case that was decided in 1992, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, generally upheld abortion rights but moved away from strict adherence to the trimester system. He moved to a system whereby abortion restrictions would be allowed unless they were determined to place an “undue burden” on the woman seeking an abortion.

Overthrowing Roe, as the leaked draft would, would remove the nation’s right to abortion and leave it up to each state to decide its policy. Some states have already acted to protect abortion access by passing their own laws, while others have passed “trigger” laws that would severely restrict abortion if Roe is overturned.

Gallup has asked the same question about abortion almost since Roe was decided: “Do you think abortions should be legal in all circumstances, legal only in certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?”

For nearly five decades, “legal under all circumstances” has generally attracted between 20% and 30% support, while “illegal under all circumstances” has attracted between 10% and 20% support.

The first choice has always been “legal only in certain circumstances”, which has generally been polled between 50% and 60%. There is no discernible long-term trend in any direction.

Findings on other types of abortion-related questions, by Gallup and other polling groups, showed similar degrees of consistency over time.

“Attitudes on almost all abortion issues 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 surveyors, “abortion is an incredibly difficult issue to measure” because results can be affected by question wording, question order and other variables, said Andrew Smith, director of the center. University of New Hampshire survey.

For example, in the wake of the leaked draft ruling, abortion rights advocates touted polls showing high levels of American opposition to overthrowing Roe.

Polls by four pollsters since 2020 have asked whether Roe should be kept or overturned, and each found between 54% and 63% in favor of keeping the decision on the books, compared to 27% and 31% who preferred overturning it. . It’s basically a 2-to-1 advantage to keep Roe.

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 the right to abortion appears to be more nuanced.

Combining support for abortion that is legal in all cases and legal in most cases, the results of three recent surveys fluctuate between 59% and 62%. It’s similar to support to keep Roe in place.

But if you group the two categories in between — those who accept the need for certain abortion rights with a desire to limit access — those results add up to 54% to 60%.

The middle category “seems to be where the opinion is,” Bowman said.

Polling results suggest Americans don’t have a nuanced view of what Roe authorizes and what would happen if it were overturned.

“Every question I’ve seen that asks whether the Supreme Court should strike down Roe shows a majority against,” Bowman said. Despite this, she said, “Americans have always been willing to place significant restrictions on its use.”

Another apparent paradox appears in a recent Fox News poll. On the one hand, 63% of respondents said Roe should be kept in place, compared to 27% who said it should be cancelled. But a slim majority of 50% supported laws banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, except in medical emergencies. A slightly larger majority of 54% supported laws banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, except in medical emergencies. 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 abortion after rape or incest; others are not as widely supported. Consistently, support for access to abortion decreases depending on whether the abortion is performed in the third trimester rather than the first.

Some of the most detailed data comes from a 2018 Gallup poll. In the first quarter, Gallup found, support for allowing a legal abortion was overwhelming when it was dangerous for the woman (83%) and when rape or incest (77%). Majorities also supported access to a first-trimester abortion for a child facing a life-threatening illness (67%) and if the child was mentally disabled (56%).

Support, however, dropped 8 to 25 percentage points if the script called for a third-trimester abortion. And in 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 that can track the sex of the respondent, she said.

“Similar portions of men and women tend to answer affirmatively to general questions such as ‘Should Roe be overthrown’ or ‘Should abortion be illegal,'” she said. declared. “But when you present real-world scenarios like a case of rape or incest, whether the fetus is viable, whether carrying the pregnancy to term will harm the patient’s future fertility or cause other health risks, if the patient has dangerous living conditions, if the patient is financially unstable, if the patient has as many children as he wants, etc., women are likely to get rid of this hard line faster than men .”

People have complicated opinions about abortion

Ultimately, analyzing abortion-related poll questions is tricky because people are honestly in conflict about their views on abortion. Views on abortion are “complicated or ambivalent,” Bowman said.

A team of researchers from the University of Notre Dame conducted 217 in-depth interviews with Americans in six states in 2019. “Attitudes toward abortion are more complex than survey statistics suggest,” they said. they concluded. “Investigation summaries can be misleading and should be interpreted with caution.”

Often, the researchers found, “surveys miss the ways Americans offer warnings and cautions, contradict each other, dodge their responses, change their minds, and think about things in real time. Moreover, most Americans do not have a bipolar view of abortion, but a multidimensional one. »

The challenge of abortion polls is twofold: first, how do respondents formulate and summarize their own views, and second, how do pollsters interpret those responses?

“How do you interpret the middle response categories? Smith said. “Is the survey for abortion only for a ‘good’ reason, or for most abortions?”

Bowman said polls may never fully capture Americans’ views on abortion.

“My gut tells me that when people have conflicting or complicated opinions on an issue like abortion, most walk away from the debate,” she said. “They don’t want to resolve, or see the need to resolve, the conflicting impulses in their thinking. This leaves the playing field to activists on both sides who don’t really capture public opinion, but claim to do so.”

Sharon D. Cole