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.