The Abortion Policy Most Americans Want

I dug into the numbers, and found that views were more straightforward than I thought—and the exercise was more disquieting than I anticipated.

An illustration of a pie chart marked with a female gender symbol
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

The relationship between public opinion and the codification of rights is not linear. Public opinion lagged decades behind the courts on the question of interracial marriage, but led the way on same-sex marriage. In theory, rights supersede public opinion—you should have the right to free speech even if what you’re saying is very unpopular. In practice, rights are safer when they are popular.

Now that the Supreme Court seems poised to reverse itself on Roe v. Wade, abortion-rights advocates and anti-abortion advocates are both claiming the mantle of popularity. Who’s right? I dug into the numbers, and found that views were more straightforward than I’d thought—and the exercise was more disquieting than I’d anticipated.

Most people want abortion to be legal, and they want restrictions on its availability. Beyond that basic position, however, voters’ views can appear contradictory. That’s in part because, although Americans tell pollsters that the details of an abortion policy are important in determining whether or not they will support it, survey respondents display very little knowledge of the relevant details.

One study indicates that myths about abortion are pervasive enough to skew voters’ understanding of the issue. Women correctly answered 18 percent of questions about abortion regulations in their state, and correctly identified only 23 percent of true statements about abortion. For instance, many incorrectly believe that “childbirth is safer than abortion” and that “abortion causes depression and anxiety.”

Similarly, in a 2016 poll by Vox and Perry/Undem of 1,060 registered voters, only 19 percent of respondents correctly answered that giving birth was less safe than having an abortion; 31 percent of respondents said they weren’t sure whether doctors who provide abortions are “licensed medical professionals like other doctors.” (The answer is yes, they are.)

Americans may not have a firm grasp of the details. But pollsters have still been able to learn a few clear lessons about attitudes on abortion policy.

Views about abortion are unusually stable

In 1958, when Gallup first asked Americans whether they approved of marriage between Black and white people, only 4 percent said yes. That number rose steadily over the next 50 years: In 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional, approval stood at a little less than 20 percent; in 1997, 64 percent; and in 2021, 94 percent.

In 1937, when Gallup polled Americans about whether they were willing to vote for a woman presidential candidate, 33 percent said yes; in 1959, 57 percent said yes; and at the end of the century, 92 percent answered affirmatively.

In 1996, just 27 percent of Americans told Gallup that they believed same-sex marriages should be recognized as equal to “traditional marriages.” By 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that states had to recognize same-sex marriage, that number had shot up to 60 percent.

Abortion is different. In the 1970s, a large majority of Americans wanted abortion to be legal in at least certain circumstances. That remains true today.

“You look at anything like support for interracial marriage or voting for a woman for president or gay marriage or legalizing marijuana … all of the cultural shifts that have happened since the dawn of polling, and this is the thing that hasn’t shifted. Abortion is a real exception in the cultural landscape,” Lydia Saad, Gallup’s director of U.S. social research, told me.

In a comprehensive review of abortion polling, the American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman found that—across decades, pollsters, and different types of questions—attitudes have remained stable since the 1970s. For example, a 1990 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 57 percent of Americans believed “the choice [to have an abortion] should be left up to the woman and her doctor.” In October 2009, this number was 51 percent. A Yankelovich/Time/CNN poll from August 1987 found that 34 percent of Americans believed abortion was the “woman’s decision no matter what the reason”; 39 percent said the same in January 2003. In August 1997, 40 percent of people identified themselves as pro-life to a Fox News pollster; in June 2019, that number was 45 percent.

Saad told me that opinions about abortion have also remained stable within generational cohorts across time. Women ages 18 to 29 in 1975 had roughly the same views as women ages 63 to 75 today: “The same age group will flash forward 50 years, and the balance of views hasn’t changed on the legality question. So these are hardwired,” she explained.

People want abortion to be legal, but favor a variety of restrictions

Gallup has found that the number of people favoring legal abortion under any circumstance has consistently outstripped the number of those wanting it to be illegal under any circumstance since 1975. But the broad center of public opinion says that abortion should be legal only “under certain circumstances.” This number has bounced from 54 percent in 1975 to a high of 61 percent in 1997 to 48 percent in 2021.

What are those circumstances? Americans are sympathetic to women seeking abortions if they are victims of rape or incest, if they have a serious health concern, or if the baby will be born with a disability. They are significantly less willing to approve of abortion in cases of economic hardship or personal preference.

To put some numbers on it: In 1972, 83 percent of Americans agreed that abortions should be allowed when “a woman’s health [is] seriously endangered by the pregnancy” and 72 percent said the same when the pregnancy is the product of rape. In 2021, those numbers were 87 percent and 84 percent, respectively.

At least 70 percent of Americans since 1972 have also favored legal abortion if “there is a strong chance of a serious defect in [the] baby.”

A poll conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago semiregularly from 1972 to 2018 found that Americans are evenly split on the acceptability of abortion if the “family has [a] very low income and cannot afford any more children” or if a woman is married and doesn’t want any more children. (The precise figures in 2018 were 47 percent and 49 percent in support, respectively.)

On the question of timing, polls by Gallup/CNN/USA Today and Associated Press/NORC from 1996 to 2021 reveal that more than 60 percent of Americans say abortion “should be generally legal” in the first three months of a pregnancy. That number drops precipitously, to the low 30s, when Americans are asked about the second trimester, and to below 20 percent when they’re asked about the third.

Various restrictions have broad support as well. In 2011, 69 percent of respondents told Gallup that they support a law forcing women seeking abortions to wait 24 hours before having one. In that same year, 71 percent said minors should have to get parental consent for an abortion. And in 2005, a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found 64 percent support for requiring that the “husband of a married woman be notified if she decides to have an abortion.”

Respondents may not understand how cumbersome these requirements are. “Most voters are trying to express really vague concepts through these incredibly specific questions that we ask them,” Charlotte Swasey, a Democratic strategist and pollster, told me.

Relatedly, laws that ban abortions in the second trimester don’t represent a middle-ground consensus position, because states that pass them also tend to put up barriers to getting abortions early on.

One 2006 study indicated that 91 percent of women who had an abortion in the second trimester would have preferred to terminate their pregnancy earlier. Some 67 percent of second-trimester patients, for instance, said they’d had to delay having their abortion because it took them so long to make arrangements; 36 percent said “it took some time before I knew I was pregnant or how far along I was.”

The political salience of abortion

On the national level, voters have generally trusted Democrats over Republicans on abortion policy. In 2012, when the Pew Research Center asked voters whether President Barack Obama or his rival in the election, Mitt Romney, was better suited to handle abortion policy, Obama edged out Romney 55 percent to 36 percent. (The same poll showed that 54 percent of voters believed correctly that Romney was pro-life, whereas 21 percent believed that incorrectly of Obama.)

Perhaps surprisingly, given how contentious abortion is in the national conversation, voters tend not to rank it as high as other issues. In an October 2021 YouGov/Economist poll, 44 percent of respondents said that abortion was “very important” to them but only 4 percent named it as a “top issue.”

But of the people who do rank abortion highly, anti-abortion advocates are more likely to subject their candidates to litmus tests on the issue. In a 2015 Gallup poll, 23 percent of those opposed to abortion and 19 percent of abortion-rights supporters said they would vote only for candidates who shared their views on the issue.

This dynamic could be shifting. As FiveThirtyEight reported, “After the Supreme Court allowed a highly restrictive abortion law to go into effect in Texas last fall, the share of Biden voters who said abortion is a ‘very important’ issue for them jumped, while the share of Trump voters who said the same thing fell.”

All of the aforementioned polling has been conducted nationally, but with the imminent demise of Roe likely, the politics of abortion will happen at the state level, where public opinion varies significantly and where Republican legislatures are ready to severely restrict or eliminate abortion rights.

I found writing this essay difficult. While scrolling through poll after poll, I resented that I had to care about public opinion on something as private as a medical decision. The doctor’s office is crowded enough without inviting in the opinions of 300 million Americans. I can’t imagine weighing in on someone’s decision to donate an organ, or to stop treatment for a difficult disease. My irritation only compounded as the survey data revealed a public that feels a sense of ownership over my choices. I imagine the median voter staring disapprovingly at me with a clipboard, trying to determine if I deserve full decision-making authority over my body. Nobody should get to volunteer my body, my time, and my life to the state, no matter how unpopular my choices.

For now, few believe that they should have the ability to impose their opinions about abortion via state violence. Pew has found that 47 percent of American adults say women should face penalties for getting an abortion “in a situation where it is illegal.” When pressed, however, only 14 percent of respondents think that jail time is an appropriate punishment, another 16 percent support community service, and 17 percent remain unsure.

But we can expect the disconnect to grow between what Americans want and what they get. Republicans in states across the country have passed or are pondering legislation well outside the mainstream of public opinion. So-called heartbeat bills, which have been proposed in several states, would limit abortion to the first six weeks, before many women even know they are pregnant. In Louisiana, Republicans even considered a bill that would treat abortion as murder, meaning patients could be charged as criminals. In Oklahoma, the second Roe falls, abortion will be banned, with no exception for rape or incest. To put a fine point on it, these are extremely radical policies, intended to almost entirely eradicate abortions.

The effect will be significant. One study that looked at 1,178 counties in 18 states from 2000 to 2014 found that “highly restrictive” abortion policies led to a 17 percent decrease from the median abortion rate. Another study estimated that total abortion bans would lead to a 21 percent increase in deaths due to pregnancy-related mortality. This is the new reality, one that has not felt possible while most women of childbearing age have been alive.

Americans’ views have remained stable under a relatively stable legal framework. But when stories of women seeking unsafe and illegal abortions hit the front pages, when victims of rape or incest find themselves forced to bear children, when underfunded social services struggle to provide adequate care for newly born but uncared-for infants, all of that could change.