Americans broadly support abortion rights, but many have complicated and conflicting feelings on the matter, with the timing and circumstances of an abortion a key factor, according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center.
The survey found 61% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 37% said it should be illegal most or all of the time. Most of the public, however, has at least somewhat mixed feelings on the matter: Only 19% said it should be legal in all cases, and a minuscule 8% said it should be illegal in all instances. There are also broad differences between when Americans think abortion is moral and when they think it should be legal.
Pew conducted the poll, which surveyed 10,441 American adults, from March 7-13 in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center, a case about the legality of a 15-week abortion ban passed in Mississippi. A draft ruling in the case that would overturn Roe v. Wade and strike down abortion rights in the United States, authored by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, leaked earlier this week.
The ruling is not yet final, but if handed down, abortion would quickly become illegal in almost all cases in roughly half of the 50 states. Some Republicans have discussed trying to pass a nationwide ban on abortion.
The survey did not ask directly about the decision, or its political implications. Instead, Pew focused on Americans’ feelings about abortion’s morality and legality.
A majority of Americans ― 56% ― say how long a woman has been pregnant should be a factor in deciding whether abortion is legal. At six weeks, 51% say abortion should be legal, while 26% say it shouldn’t be and 19% say it depends. At 14 weeks, roughly the end of the first trimester of a pregnancy, 41% say abortion should be legal, while 33% say it should be illegal and 22% say it depends.
After the point of viability, when a fetus could survive outside the womb, support for legal abortion drops: Just 29% say abortion should be legal at 24 weeks, while 48% say it should be illegal, and 18% say it depends.
The overwhelming majority of abortions take place early in a pregnancy, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. In 2019, the last year for which data was available, 93% of abortions took place in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. Another 6% took place between the 13th and 20th week of pregnancy, with just 1% taking place after the 20th week.
Roe v. Wade protects abortion rights up until the point of viability, though many Democratic elected officials have also fought against restrictions after that point.
There’s also broad support for abortion rights in specific instances: 73% of Americans say abortion should be legal when the pregnancy threatens a women’s life or health, including 62% of Republicans. Similarly, 69% say abortion should be legal if the pregnancy is a result of rape, including 56% of Republicans.
The situation is slightly more complicated if the baby is likely to be born with severe disabilities or health problems: 53% say it should be legal, while 19% say it should be illegal. There’s a much bigger split between the nation’s two major political parties on the issue: 68% of Democrats say it should be legal, while just 38% of Republicans say the same.
While GOP elected officials have often rhetorically supported exceptions to abortion bans for rape and the life and health of the mother in the past, they have been more willing recently to jettison those qualifiers and support all-out abortion bans.
Overall, 80% of Democrats say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while just 38% of Republicans agreed. Democrats have become more supportive of abortion rights in recent years. In 2007, 63% of Democrats thought abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Republican opposition to abortion rights has remained steady.
Americans do see significant differences between abortion’s morality and legality: 46% of Americans say abortion is morally wrong in most or all instances, while 52% say it’s either not a moral issue or is acceptable in most or all instances. But nearly half of the country ― 48% ― believes abortion should be legal in some situations where they feel it would be morally wrong.
Further complicating the picture, Americans often hold seemingly contradictory views about abortion rights. A full third of Americans agree that “human life begins at conception, so a fetus is a person with rights” ― a position often associated with conservative attempts to severely restrict abortion rights ― and “the decision about whether to have an abortion should belong solely to the pregnant woman.” The latter position is generally associated with liberal attempts to protect or expand abortion rights.
There are also significant splits by age on whether abortion should be legal. Nearly three-quarters of those 18-29 think abortion should be legal, as do 62% of those ages 30-49. Republicans in those age groups are more likely to support abortion rights than their older counterparts: 47% of Republicans ages 18-29 think abortion should be legal most or all of the time.
By comparison, just 55% of people ages 50-64 think abortion should be legal most or all of the time, and 54% of seniors said the same. Only about a third of Republicans in those age groups think abortion should be legal most of the time.
Religion, unsurprisingly, is also a major dividing line on abortion rights. Pew’s survey found 74% of white evangelical voters think abortion should be illegal most or all of the time, a number that far surpasses any other demographic group. At the same time, 84% of people with no religious affiliation think abortion should be legal most or all of the time ― also a number that surpasses most other demographic groups.
Despite the Catholic Church’s strict anti-abortion stances, a 56% majority of Catholics said abortion should be legal most or all of the time, compared to 42% who said it should be illegal most or all of the time.