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Most Americans have nuanced views on abortion, Pew Center report shows

Abortion rights advocates and antiabortion advocates demonstrate outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., after a leak of a draft majority opinion overturning abortion rights on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Relatively few Americans hold an absolutist view on the legality of abortion, a Pew Center report released Friday shows. The report, one of the most comprehensive surveys on abortion attitudes in years, found that 71 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in some circumstances and illegal in others. Nineteen percent, or about 1 in 5 Americans, think abortion should be legal in all cases, and 8 percent say it should be illegal without any exceptions.

The Center has surveyed the public on abortion for decades, and the latest survey shows that support for legal abortion has remained steady since the Center began surveying people in 1995. Sixty-one percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Still, the Center’s researchers found that most people’s attitudes are nuanced and contingent upon a variety of circumstances, such as how far along a person is in their pregnancy and whether the pregnancy endangers a pregnant person’s life.

“People don’t want to give a simple yes or no answer,” senior researcher Besheer Mohamed said. “Their views are complicated. They’re nuanced. And so giving folks a chance to really express that was a big part of our motivation for this.”

The report is based on a survey of 10,441 people that the Center conducted in early March — after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a Mississippi case that could overturn Roe v. Wade but before a leaked draft showed that a majority of the justices want to overturn the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

The new survey did not ask specifically about Roe, but previous Center studies have found that most Americans say the Supreme Court should not completely overturn that decision. The Washington Post, in a separate poll conducted with ABC News last month, found that 54 percent of Americans think the 1973 decision should be upheld while 28 percent believe it should be overturned — about 2 to 1.

Hannah Hartig, a research associate who worked with Mohamed on the report, said that if the Court overturns Roe, this new analysis could be key as states look to craft new abortion legislation.

“What this does is provide a really great baseline,” Hartig said. “If abortion does move from the judicial arena to the legislative arena, and states are making these decisions, it provides a baseline for how Americans would feel about a six-week abortion ban or no exceptions for cases of rape or the health of a woman.”

While the researchers did find partisan gaps in opinions about the legality of abortion, they also found that people from both parties agree on one issue: Better financial and employment support for pregnant women would curb the number of abortions. Nearly two-thirds of Americans said they believe better supports would reduce the number of abortions, and nearly 6 in 10 said expanding support for parents through better child care or family leave policies would reduce the number of abortions. Roughly 60 percent also said expanding sex education would reduce the number of abortions. The researchers found that each of those had more broad support than using laws to reduce the number of abortions.

Mohamed and Hartig found that even the most resolved respondents on both sides expressed support for some exceptions and restrictions. Although a quarter of Americans said abortion should be legal in all cases, a fourth of those went on to say that there should be some exceptions. Similarly, 1 in 10 said abortion should be illegal in all cases, but in later questions, 20 percent of those said there may be some instances when abortion should be legal.

Nearly half of the respondents who said the procedure should be illegal in all or most cases also said it should be legal if the pregnancy threatens the health or life of the mother, and more than a third said abortion should be legal in cases of rape. Four in 10 abortion opponents say the statement “the decision about whether to have an abortion should belong solely to the pregnant woman” describes their own view at least “somewhat” well.

Among those who support legal abortion, the researchers found a large number who also favor some restrictions. Fifty-six percent of people who support abortion said doctors should be required to notify a parent or guardian before performing an abortion on a minor. More than half of abortion rights supporters believe that when an abortion occurs matters, and, in some cases, the procedure should be illegal.

Overall, support for legal abortion drops the further along a person is in their pregnancy. Although Roe made abortions legal nationwide up to 24 weeks — roughly the time when a healthy fetus could survive outside the womb — far fewer Americans support abortions when a pregnant person is that far along. While 44 percent of all U.S. adults say abortion should be legal at six weeks, 22 percent believe it should be legal at 24 weeks.

Still, 44 percent of those who believe abortion should be illegal at 24 weeks said if a woman’s life is in danger or if the baby will be born with disabilities, the procedure should be legal, even after the point of viability.

The researchers also found that a third of Americans hold what activists might consider conflicting views: Those respondents believe that a pregnant woman should be the only person to decide whether an abortion is right for her, and they also believe that human life begins at conception, and thus a fetus is a person with rights. Additionally, while nearly half of Americans see abortion as morally wrong in most or all cases, 22 percent said they believe abortion should be illegal in every situation where they believe it is immoral. Nearly half said abortion may be morally wrong in some circumstances but should nevertheless be legal.

“There’s one way of looking at these and saying, ‘Well, these two are in conflict,’ ” Mohamed said. “Like, on the one hand, how could you think human life begins at conception and then on the other hand, say, ‘but the woman should be able to choose’? But we definitely see that among about a third of the public overall, and among upwards of half of Black Protestants. They say that both of these positions match their views, at least somewhat so. So we see a real sense of a sort of a recognition of two competing concerns.”

Religious people also see the issue in what the researchers called “shades of gray.” Though Mohamed and Harting found a tight connection between the importance of religion in a person’s life and their views on abortion, they also found that a majority of people with religious views believe abortion should be legal in some circumstances and illegal in others. For instance, though the majority of White evangelicals believe abortion should be illegal all or most of the time, half also said abortion should be legal if a pregnancy threatens the life or health of the woman.

Similarly, more than three-fourths of nonevangelical White protestants believe abortion should be legal in some situations and illegal in others. Nearly 7 in 10 Black Protestants agree, as do 76 percent of Catholics.

“When people are thinking about their own views, they know that they’re nuanced and complicated and it depends on different things,” Mohamed said.

But, he added, the public discussion around abortion is “not always framed that way.”

“I sincerely hope that the report and the analysis we’ve done can help move the public conversation in a more nuanced way,” Mohamed said.

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