How central is the issue of abortion for most Americans today? Judging from the enormous amount of press coverage the issue receives—especially on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, decided 41 years ago Wednesday, you might guess that the issue is a major one in most households. But that isn't the case. Just recently Gallup asked people to tell them what the most important problem facing the country was. It is a question Gallup has been asking for decades and it is a revealing one because people can give the pollsters any answer they like. Only 1 percent mentioned abortion, and it's rarely been any higher.
This is one of the many misconceptions about public opinion on abortion. We have been studying the issue for years and each year we compile data from the major pollsters to present a comprehensive picture of attitudes. We don't take any polls of our own. We rely on the work of pollsters that are household names, including Gallup, Harris, and Pew. The data from the pollsters are remarkably clear and they present a picture that is far more nuanced than pro-life or pro-choice activists suggest.
For one thing, opinion about abortion is remarkably stable. Since the 1970s, we have seen considerable changes in attitudes towards gay marriage and marijuana legalization but not in opinions about abortion. Take a question that Gallup has asked more than 50 times since 1975: Should abortion be legal in certain circumstances? That year, 54 percent said yes. When CNN’s pollsters asked the same question in May 2013, 54 percent gave that response, with 20 to 25 percent at the extremes.
Most Americans are deeply conflicted about abortion. Many believe it is an act of murder. But polls also show that Americans simultaneously believe that the decision to have an abortion should be a personal choice between a woman and her doctor. These two ideas are in deep conflict but many people hold these contradictory views and see no need to reconcile them. They pull away from abortion controversies in the news because pro-life and pro-choice activists don't represent their own complex views. An important survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that a significant number of Americans identify simultaneously as pro-life and pro-choice!
Americans do not want Roe overturned, but they are willing to put significant restrictions on the use of abortion. They have long favored parental consent for a minor to have an abortion. They favor spousal notification. They support first-trimester abortions but oppose second- and third-trimester ones. These responses don't budge. One extensive battery of survey questions asked since the early 1970s shows that people support abortion when the circumstances of the pregnancy are out of a woman's control (she has been raped, the life of the mother is at stake), but they oppose it when she can control the circumstances (she is married and doesn't want more kids, she is not married and doesn't want to marry the father).
The enormous amount of attention abortion received in several Senate contests in 2012 was more of a result of a few candidates' inflammatory comments on the issue than an indication of the centrality of the issue in most voters' minds. During the heat of the controversy, only 17 percent of people who said they intended to vote on Election Day told Gallup they could only vote for a candidate who shared their views on the issue. Gallup had asked that question before, and once again the answers in the new poll were in line with earlier ones. A third in the new question said that abortion would not be important to their vote and 45 percent that it would be one of many issues they would think about when voting.
Pro-life and pro-choice activists don't see the shades of gray that most Americans see on the issue. Neither their actions nor court decisions have altered public opinion in any significant way since Roe was decided more than four decades ago. Abortion will never be far from the headlines because the activists on both sides are noisy and passionate, and the media is attracted to controversy. But for most of the public, the issue is complex and cloudy.