GUEST SCHOLAR POLL REVIEW
Abortion Attitudes Today
by Karlyn Bowman
If past elections are a guide, it is a safe bet that abortion will be a topic of much discussion. Already the issue has generated considerable contoversy in both parties. All of the major candidates for the presidency have felt compelled to spell out their positions on the issue with great care. The leading Republican candidates describe themselves as pro-life. The Democratic contenders have planted themselves firmly on the pro-choice side of the debate.
The abortion issue clearly divides the candidates. But what about the rest of us?
In part because the debate over the legality of abortion has continued unabated since the Supreme Court's landmark Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973, the major polling firms have investigated attitudes about it regularly. Hundreds of questions have been asked from many different angles. Gallup returned to the subject in late April of this year, updating a series of questions, some of which have been asked for more than two decades.
Gauging public opinion on some issues is difficult because many of us haven't thought much about them. Many people don't have opinions about the GATT treaty, for example, or about what the International Monetary Fund should do about Asia's financial crisis. One of the most striking things about the collection of polling questions on abortion is that on almost every question, nearly everyone has an opinion. Not only do most people have opinions about abortion, but the data collected by Gallup and other survey organizations also suggest that opinions be firmly held. Results on many questions vary little from year to year. It is not possible, however, to characterize these stable opinions simply.
The results of a question Louis Harris and Associates began asking in 1985 have also been consistent. In 1985, 25 percent of those surveyed favored permitting a woman who wants to have an abortion to have one in all circumstances, 53 percent favored this in some circumstances, and 20 percent in no circumstances. In 1998, those proportions were very similar -- 23, 58, and 17 percent, respectively.
In 1994, Gallup began asking the vast group in the middle, those people who said abortion should be legal only under some circumstances, whether they thought it should be legal under most circumstances or only in a few circumstances. As the next chart shows, most of those people in the middle want abortion to be legal in only a few circumstances.
Competing Values of Life and Choice
Another powerful feeling comes through clearly in the survey data. Ours is a very individualistic society, and Americans like the idea of making choices themselves. In areas as different as decisions about whether or not to smoke, to support a third party, or even to take one's own life, Americans want individual decision-making respected. When the abortion issue is framed in terms of choice, majorities support letting a woman make her own decision about having an abortion. In a January 1998 poll for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, Hart/Teeter Research found 60 percent of respondents agreeing "The choice of an abortion should be left up to the woman and her doctor," while 26 percent said the procedure should be legal only in cases where the pregnancy results from rape or incest or when the life of the woman is at risk, and 11 percent said it should be illegal in all circumstances.
In part because Americans support the idea of individual choice, they do not want to ban abortion. Gallup's question, like those of other pollsters, shows majorities opposed to a ban. In 1996 and 1998, 56 and 59 percent respectively told Gallup interviewers that they opposed a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in all circumstances, except when necessary to save the life of the mother. A CBS News/New York Times question asked in 1982 and again in 1998 shows even larger majorities (68 and 76 percent, respectively) opposed to an amendment to the Constitution which would make all abortions illegal.
Some Grounds for Abortion More Acceptable than Others
Late-term Abortions Widely Opposed
Americans support other restrictions on abortions. In Gallup's 1996 poll, 74 percent supported a 24-hour waiting period, 74 percent parental notification for women under 18 years of age, and 70 percent spousal notification.
Although most questions in this area show attitudes to be quite stable over time, a few show some change. In April 1996, 57 percent of those surveyed by Gallup favored a law that would make it illegal to perform a specific abortion procedure conducted in the last six months of pregnancy known as a "partial birth abortion, except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother." The graphic nature of the ensuing congressional debate had an impact on opinion. By July, 71 percent wanted to make it illegal. At the same time, the Gallup long-term trend concerning legality of abortion showed a drop in the percentage of Americans who think abortion should be legal in all circumstances, from approximately one-third to one-quarter. (See Saad article in Feb/Mar 1998 issue of Public Perspective Magazine for a full discussion of the impact of partial-birth issue on abortion attitudes). While opposition to partial-birth abortion has subsequently fallen back somewhat -- now at 61 percent -- support for abortion under any circumstances remains at just 23 percent. This is a relatively small but significant change compared to just three years ago, before the partial-birth issue was raised.
Americans Closely Divided Between Two Abortion Labels
When Gallup recently asked people in each group how strongly they felt about the label they had just chosen, those in the pro-life group were more likely to say they felt strongly (67 percent) than those in the pro-choice camp (55 percent.) Pro-life Americans were also more likely than those who are pro-choice to say they will only vote for candidates who share their abortion views, by a 24 percent to 16 percent margin.
For most voters (51 percent in the new Gallup poll) a candidate's position on the issue is just one of many important factors he or she will consider when casting a ballot, and for about three in ten, abortion will not be a major issue. Around one in five voters say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion. This includes 10 percent of Americans who will only vote for candidates who share their pro-life views, and 7 percent who are equally strict about voting pro-choice. These voters represent a consequential proportion of the electorate and their strong feelings about abortion explain in part why the issue of abortion continues to get so much attention and why candidates feel the need to spell out their positions early in election cycles.
The abortion issue does not divide men or women in significant ways. Older people, as the table below shows, are generally less likely to call themselves pro-choice than younger people. Those with more formal education and higher incomes tend to be more supportive of legal abortion than those with less education and lower incomes. Democrats and Republicans are mirror images on the pro-choice, pro-life question, with 38 percent of Republicans identifying themselves and pro-choice, and 57 percent pro-life, while 53% of Democrats consider themselves pro-choice and 34 percent pro-life. Protestants and Catholics tend to differ little on their attitudes on most questions relating to abortion, but in this Gallup question, Catholics are more likely than Protestants to embrace the pro-choice label. Those who are more active in their faith are generally more likely to call themselves pro-life than those who are less active. Of those who consider religion very important in their lives, for example, just 31 percent are pro-choice. Among those who say religion is not important in their lives, that proportion is 83 percent.
The data presented here provide a sampling of a vast collection of survey data collected by the pollsters on abortion. What is striking is that a quarter century of debate has not significantly changed attitudes on abortion. Most Americans remain of two minds about the issue, pulled on some questions in the pro-life direction and on others, to the pro-choice one. That is the reality politicians must confront.
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