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The remarkably unchanging American split on abortion

Here's what you need to know about the Supreme Court's abortion decision (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
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When the Supreme Court on Monday threw out a Texas law restricting the operation of facilities that perform abortions, the decision quickly stirred up emotion on both sides of the contentious issue. The Texas law, the justices found, posed "a substantial obstacle to women seeking abortions" by mandating certain provisions from abortion providers that were often too costly to meet.

What's interesting about the fight over the Texas law, though, is two things: first, that most Texans don't name abortion as a top political priority, and second, that attitudes on the legality of abortion have remained relatively consistent for decades.

To the first point, we look at a Texas Research Institute poll from September. Asked to name the most important political issue facing the state and the country, only 1 percent of respondents identified abortion at either level. That's the same as taxes and "moral decline" in Texas and crime and the Middle East at the national level.

Of course, Texans can view abortion as important without it being a top concern. In 2013, shortly before the state legislature took up the proposal that the Supreme Court rejected Monday, the Texas Tribune asked whether laws in the state should be made more or less strict. Nearly 4 in 10 said they should be made more strict — but more than a quarter said they should be less strict.

The same poll found that conservatives were slightly more passionate in support of a ban on abortions after 20 weeks than liberals were passionately opposed.

That split above — roll the laws back vs. open them up — has been surveyed repeatedly at the national level. Gallup started asking about the subject in 1975, surveying respondents to see whether they thought that abortion should always be legal, never be legal or be legal in certain circumstances. In the April 1975 poll, 75 percent of respondents said abortion should always or sometimes be legal. In the most recent survey, conducted in May, 79 percent said the same thing.

The percentage of people saying that abortion should be legal in some or all cases has never been below 75 percent and never more than 84 percent. The median value has been 80 percent.

Pew Research asks a similar question: Should abortion be legal in all or most cases or illegal in all or most cases? This is framed differently; illegal in most cases means legal in some under Gallup's phrasing. But the same consistency is evident.

The range of people saying that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases has been similarly narrow, from a low of 38 percent to a high of 44.

There's a lot of wiggle room within the boundaries of what's legal, which is where nearly all of the policy wrangling (including in Texas) takes place. Proposals expanding or limiting access to abortions face distinct political challenges that aren't captured here. As a broad trend, these extremes are instructive: The number of people adamant in support of or opposition to abortion doesn't change a lot. There are fluctuations, visible both in the graphs above and obvious from what can happen at a state level. Nationally and considered in broad categories, though, not much has changed over the past 40 years.

The fight over abortion since Roe v. Wade has been trench warfare, with each side trying a variety of tactics to inch their way forward. Monday's court decision knocked abortion opponents back a few hundred yards — but the competing armies will likely remain largely intact.