Why it's difficult to gauge Americans' support for abortion rights
Posted May 16, 2019 7:12 a.m. EDT
CNN — Republican-run state governments are clearly aiming for a Supreme Court showdown over Roe v. Wade. Georgia recently passed a law banning most abortions after six weeks, and Alabama just passed a near-total abortion ban. Both efforts are part of more than a dozen such successful and unsuccessful attempts this year.
Not surprisingly, the blowback has been stiff from abortion rights groups and politicians. Some have even called for a boycott of Georgia.
The collision between the two sides might make you believe that we have two well-defined sides when it comes to the issue of abortion. And while there is clearly some consistency, abortion is a rather tricky issue because it's not clear how many in the middle actually feel about it.
Depending on how you ask about abortion rights, Americans are either overwhelmingly in favor of it or they are split down the middle.
So if you're left a little confused about where Americans stand on abortion rights, that's understandable.
The clearest takeaway is that there are some Americans who are clearly on either side of the divide, while for many it isn't as clearly defined. How the question is phrased definitely matters. It's not entirely clear that Democrats or Republicans have the upper hand in the abortion debate.
Every single recent poll indicates that Americans are more likely to be in favor of abortion rights than not. A Pew Research Center poll from late last year found that 58% of Americans say abortion should be always or mostly legal, compared with 37% who say it should be always or mostly illegal. This mostly lines up with 2018 Gallup polling that discovered that 60% of Americans think first trimester abortions should generally be legal and 64% don't want Roe, which guaranteed the right to an abortion in the first trimester, to be overturned.
Indeed, anti-abortion ballot measures have at best a mixed history in recent years. Personhood ballot measures have gone down in defeat in many states. Even in the deep red state of West Virginia, an amendment that said women didn't have the right to abortion barely passed in 2018.
These data points might suggest Democrats and abortion rights activists have the upper hand in the abortion debate.
But other polling and Republicans' ability to continue passing anti-abortion laws suggest that it's not a clear-cut win.
At least part of the problem for Democrats and abortion rights activists has to do with something that dogs liberals in general. Many people will say they support liberal issues, while, at the same time, culturally identifying themselves with conservative causes and politicians who believe the opposite.
Republican Mitt Romney, for example, won 40% of voters in 2012 who said abortion should mostly be legal. By the time Romney ran for president, he was opposed to most types of abortion.
Another way to think about the abortion debate is to declare oneself as either "pro-choice" (i.e. pro-abortion rights) or "pro-life" (i.e. anti-abortion). This is the way politicians will often label themselves, as will groups on the different sides of the abortion debate. It's the pro-abortion-rights group "NARAL Pro-Choice America" and the anti-abortion "March for Life."
When asked whether they're "pro-choice" or "pro-life," Americans are much more divided. The same 2018 Gallup polling that discovered that 60% of Americans were for abortion rights in the first trimester found an even split between the 48% of Americans who called themselves pro-choice and the 48% of Americans who called themselves pro-life.
Indeed, take a look at recent polling from Georgia when it came to the state Legislature bill on banning most abortions after six weeks (1.5 months) of pregnancy. This was an issue in which Democrats and Republicans in the state government had clearly defined their positions, with Republicans passing the law and most Democrats knocking it. In other words, the legislation had become identified with the conservative cause. About 49% were against the bill and about 44% were for it in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, which was done as the bill was debated and passed by the Legislature, but ended before it was signed into law. That split fell within the margin of error and is generally reflective of a state in which President Donald Trump is unpopular, though not overwhelmingly so.
Respondents in that same poll, however, were against overturning Roe by nearly 3 to 1. This was even though respondents were told that Roe allowed abortions during the first three months of pregnancy.
These two views are, at first glance, incongruent with each other. You'd expect more opposition to a ruling that allowed for fewer restrictions on abortion. Yet it's pretty clear looking at the polling that the shift was in large part driven by Republican voters reacting positively to their party pushing and passing the law. Opposition to Roe was about 27 points lower among Republicans (43%) than support for the new abortion law ban (70%). Among Democrats, opposition to Roe was only about 13 points lower than support for the new law.
Another issue is for abortion rights activists nationwide is that it's not entirely clear what the about 35% of Americans who say abortion should "mostly be legal" mean by "mostly." Does that mean they believe abortion is a choice always left up to a woman and her doctor? Perhaps not.
When Gallup asked Americans about whether a first trimester abortion should be allowed for "any reason," support dropped from 60% to 45%. Now, obviously, "any reason" is the loosest definition. Still, it shows that even first trimester abortion support is subject to the wording of the question.
When asked whether abortions should be allowed for pregnancy resulting from "rape or incest," Americans' support goes up to 77%. The Georgia bill allows for this exception, which could explain partially why opposition to it drops compared with opposition to Roe. (Alabama's new law does not.) Questions about Roe generally say it's a constitutionally given right, though they usually don't say that women can have an abortion "for any reason."
The high support for rape and incest exceptions might be why a lot of Republican presidential candidates (like Romney) say they are against abortion except in the cases of rape or incest. If the abortion debate is defined by the law passed in Georgia, Republicans and anti-abortion groups stand a better chance of winning in the court of opinion. If, however, it is defined by the law passed by the Alabama Legislature, it will hurt their chances.