The American public, on the other hand, is not absolutist — and is even somewhat confused — on aspects of the issue, according to a poll released Wednesday.
A majority of Americans (59 percent) said abortion should be legal in most or all cases, and about 7 in 10 said that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned, according to the survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Those figures have remained relatively stable through decades of debates and protests. Likewise, the poll found the public overwhelmingly believes abortion should be legal if the patient’s life is endangered (82 percent) and in the case of rape or incest (80 percent). Seventy-nine percent believe the decision is best made by women themselves in consultation with their doctors, rather than by lawmakers.
Yet the data also shows another side to the story, with large portions of the country supporting some state restrictions on the procedure.
A clear majority (69 percent) of the public supports laws requiring abortions to be performed by doctors who have hospital admitting privileges, similar to the requirements in a Louisiana law challenged in a case that goes before the Supreme Court this term. Majorities of Americans also support laws that require women to wait 24 hours between meeting a health-care provider and getting an abortion (66 percent) and laws requiring doctors to show and describe ultrasound images to them (57 percent).
Americans are also split over laws that prohibit abortions once fetal cardiac activity is detected — the so-called “heartbeat” bills that have been passed by numerous states over the past 12 months. Forty-nine percent support them, and 50 percent are opposed. Yet majorities are opposed to making it a crime for doctors to provide abortions (65 percent) or for women to be fined or imprisoned if they get abortions (74 percent.)
About two-thirds said state- and county-level abortion regulations are generally intended to make access to abortion more difficult, rather than to protect the health of women. And 61 percent said they would like their states to pass laws to protect women’s access to abortions, rather than making it more difficult.
“Very few say abortion should be illegal in all cases,” Ashley Kirzinger, associate director for public opinion research for the Kaiser Family Foundation, said in an interview. “A slightly larger number — but still not a lot — say it should be legal in all cases. Really, the public falls somewhere in between.”
The survey found 11 percent said abortion should be “illegal in all cases,” while 27 percent said it should always be legal.
The researchers also found what they called “a significant knowledge gap” about abortion facts.
A majority of Americans (69 percent) said — incorrectly — that most abortions occur eight weeks or more into a pregnancy. Nearly two-thirds of abortions actually take place at eight or fewer weeks of gestation.
A 62 percent majority also believe — incorrectly — that emergency contraceptives can be used to end a pregnancy in the early stages. Emergency contraception such as “Plan B” pills help prevent pregnancy before it occurs.
About 8 in 10, or 79 percent, said they had never heard of mifepristone, or a medication abortion, the pill that can be taken to end a pregnancy that is different from emergency contraception.
Smaller but still significant percentages of Americans believe that a woman who has gotten an abortion has a higher chance of getting breast cancer (13 percent) and will have a harder time getting pregnant again (26 percent). Research shows no relation between abortion and breast cancer or abortion and future fertility.
And many Americans are unsure whether abortion would still be legal in their state if Roe v. Wade were overturned. Thirty-five percent of those in states where abortion would still be legal correctly said it would remain that way, while a similar 38 percent in states where abortion would become illegal knew that would change.
Kirzinger said another interesting finding is that many Americans’ feelings about the restrictions appear to be “malleable.” After hearing counterarguments, some who had said they supported state-level restrictions changed their minds.
That’s of paramount importance to abortion rights supporters and opponents alike when state legislatures are placing near-total bans on the procedure and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court seems poised to revisit the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that gave women the right to an abortion. This election cycle, Planned Parenthood and the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List are spending more than than $40 million dollars each with the aim of moving voters with mixed feelings to their side.
The Kaiser Family Foundation poll, which has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points, was conducted online and by telephone Dec. 20-30, 2019, of a nationally representative sample of 1,215 adults.
Washington Post polling director Scott Clement contributed to this report.