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What the Public Really Wants on Abortion Rights

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Opponents of abortion rights have concentrated on chipping away at those rights with various restrictions, such as parental involvement and biased counseling requirements. No doubt these groups are very happy with the new Supreme Court decision upholding the federal law banning a type of abortion procedure named “partial birth abortion,” but the deeper story about support for fundamental abortion rights in America is less likely to make them happy. 

A thorough review of public opinion data indicates that America remains, on balance, a pro-choice country and that opposition to reversing Roe v. Wade still runs strong. A solid wall of public opposition currently stands in the way of abortion rights opponents’ plans to turn back the clock and criminalize abortion as it was before 1973—a wall that is unlikely to come down anytime soon.

General Views on Abortion Rights

According to the most recent Gallup data from May of this year, a plurality of the country (49 percent to 45 percent) considers itself pro-choice rather than pro-life —an entirely typical result. Indeed, all 28 polls (save one, where there was a tie) where Gallup has asked this question, dating back to 1995, have returned a pro-choice plurality or majority.

Interestingly, a variant wording of this question used by Newsweek yields an even stronger pro-choice result. Newsweek asked: “Which side of the political debate on the abortion issue do you sympathize with more: the right-to-life movement that believes abortion is the taking of human life and should be outlawed; OR, the pro-choice movement that believes a woman has the right to choose what happens to her body, including deciding to have an abortion?” In the three times Newsweek has asked this question since 1998, an average of 54 percent selected the pro-choice option, compared to 37 percent who selected the right–to-life option.

In addition, in a January Gallup poll, 59 percent of the public either believes abortion laws should remain as they are (36 percent) or be made less strict (23 percent). This is an even more typical result: every Gallup poll since 2003 has returned either 59 percent or 60 percent support on this question. 

The most common question that Gallup asks is whether abortion should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under some circumstances or illegal in all circumstances. Gallup’s annual averages on this question show that the number wishing to ban abortion has hit 20 percent only once in the last two decades; in the last five years it has averaged below 18 percent. The number of respondents wishing to make abortion legal in all circumstances is much higher, hitting 30 percent in 2006 and averaging 26 percent in the last five years. The rest (roughly 55 percent) believe abortion should be legal, but only in certain circumstances (further divided about 40 percent to 15 percent between those who believe “a few” or “most” circumstances qualify).

NBC/Wall Street Journal polls gauge support for abortion rights in a different manner, by asking “Which of the following best represents your views about abortion? The choice on abortion should be left up to the woman and her doctor. Abortion should be legal only in cases in which pregnancy results from rape or incest or when the life of the woman is at risk. OR, Abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.”  

The last time they asked this question, in April of this year, they found 55 percent saying that the choice on abortion should be left up to the woman and her doctor, and 30 percent saying abortion should only be legal in cases of rape, incest or risk to the mother’s life. Just 13 percent said it should be illegal in all circumstances.  Since 1990, the number saying choice on abortion should be left up to the woman and her doctor has never dipped below 53 percent and has reached a high of 60 percent three times.

Finally, The Washington Post and Quinnipiac University ask still another question to gauge support for abortion rights: “Do you think abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases or illegal in all cases?”  Both polls have asked this question this year and both found, as they have through the years, that those saying abortion should be legal in most or all cases (54 percent in the Quinnipiac poll and 55 percent in the Washington Post poll) outnumber those saying abortion should be illegal in most or all cases (39 percent and 43 percent, respectively).

To read the full analysis of the polls, read the report:

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
202.478.6331 or apreiss@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org