Boiling down a decades-long dispute dividing generations of Americans to a few simple polling questions fails to accurately capture the nuance of Americans’ attitudes towards abortion. A recent Gallup poll that purports to find most Americans oppose restrictions on abortion after the 18th week of pregnancy and support Roe v. Wade is a case in point.
A more careful analysis of American public opinion shows that while a majority of the public identifies as “pro-choice,” a supermajority also supports limiting abortion after the first three months of pregnancy. Reliance on the latest Gallup polling ends up distorting and politicizing public opinion.
Accurately portraying public opinion on abortion is especially critical because the Supreme Court is slated to hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization during its 2021-22 term. The case concerns whether states can limit abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Over the coming months, abortion activists are likely to cite the Gallup survey as evidence that this sort of limit is deeply unpopular, even though more reliable polling shows a majority of Americans support it.
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Many Americans don’t fully understand that the nearly 50-year-old decision in Roe v. Wade allowed abortion during all nine months of pregnancy. That makes the United State one of just seven countries in the world allowing elective abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and puts us in the company of North Korea and China.
Given the complexity and importance of abortion attitudes, it is critical that polling on the subject delves into the specific policies concerning the practice. Superficial up/down questions are likely to lead to superficial answers that don’t fully or accurately capture public opinion.
For 12 years, Marist has been conducting annual polling on abortion with a high level of precision and detail. Marist asks a range of questions about abortion that go beyond simple yes or no questions about Roe. A major finding of Marist’s 2021 poll was that 76% of Americans would limit abortion to — at most — the first three months of pregnancy. This has consistently been the case for each of the 12 years Marist has been asking. The Associated Press has just released a poll with findings similar to Marist.
While the Gallup poll results report Americans support Roe v. Wade, a deeper dive with Marist demonstrates Americans back many restrictions that the ruling permitted. For instance, Marist found that 70% of Americans believe in limiting abortions performed because a child will be born with Down syndrome.
This level of detail, along with the longevity of the poll, makes Marist a superior source of data compared to the Gallup’s latest poll. Results from Marist prove that the American people aren’t robotically supportive unlimited abortion. The public understands the tragedy of abortion, particularly late-term abortion, and their views reflect the issue’s complexity.
How the questions are phrased is vital for getting at what Americans believe. Consider, for example, that the 2021 Gallup poll found that 56% of Americans oppose an abortion ban after 18 weeks, but a 2018 poll also conducted by Gallup showed that 60% of respondents thought abortion should be legal only during the first trimester of pregnancy (through week 12).
News outlets have acknowledged that public opinion about abortion is very difficult to parse. A recent analysis by the New York Times found that most Americans say they support Roe, and yet a majority support limits on abortion banned by it. This split reflects the complexity of abortion and the importance of clearly defining what it means.
When pollsters successfully tap into the nuances of Americans’ attitudes towards abortion, we find that limiting abortion after 15 weeks — when children in the womb have fully formed noses and lips, eyelids and eyebrows and can suck their thumb — isn’t very controversial at all. It would simply bring the United States in line with the laws of most European countries as opposed to keeping company with human rights offenders like China and North Korea.
We look forward to the day that no woman feels she must resort to abortion. But in the meantime, upholding the modest law at issue in the Dobbs late-term abortion case would not only align with American public opinion, it could also allow our outdated laws to finally catch up with the indisputable science that confirms the unborn child is every bit as human and deserving of protection as you and me.