By 56 percent to 27 percent, more Americans would prefer to impose limits on abortions after the first 20 weeks of pregnancy rather than the 24-week mark established by the Supreme Court, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
An additional 10 percent of those surveyed volunteered that they would prefer to outlaw abortion in the United States altogether or limit it sooner than 20 weeks after fertilization.
At the same time, however, 54 percent said they oppose state laws that make it more difficult for abortion clinics to operate, compared with 40 percent who support such legislation.
More broadly, overall support for legal abortion remains stable, with 55 percent of those polled saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 41 percent saying it should be illegal in most or all cases. That finding is similar to a 2012 Post-ABC poll and other surveys in recent years.
The findings come as lawmakers on Capitol Hill and in states across the country are pushing to ban abortions earlier and impose requirements to make it harder for abortion clinics to operate.
Under the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, an abortion can be performed until the point at which a doctor determines a fetus’s viability, which is generally defined as about 24 weeks of gestation. After that point, government can prohibit the procedure so long as safeguards are provided for the mother’s health and well-being.
Bob Millsaps, an 80-year-old retiree in Bristol, Va., who participated the poll, said that he would like to ban abortion except in cases of rape and incest and that he prefers a 20-week ban to one starting at 24 weeks. But he added that he opposes regulations, including one now in effect in Virginia, that require abortion clinic operators to “upgrade the clinics to hospital standards. That’s forcing them to not having any abortions at all.”
By more than 2 to 1, Americans prefer that abortion laws be decided nationally, based on the Constitution, rather than state by state, according to the poll. This applies to both strong supporters and opponents of abortion rights: 73 percent of those who said abortion should always be legal want a national rule, as do 72 percent of those who said it should be illegal in all cases.
But on a practical level, abortion’s ground rules are being rewritten on the state level, where 50 new restrictions have been adopted since January, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute. A dozen states have adopted laws banning abortion 20 weeks after fertilization or earlier, according to the institute. Three of those laws have been struck down, and two, in North Dakota and Texas, take effect in the coming weeks. Seven are now in effect, in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a possible 2016 presidential contender, is considering introducing a bill to ban abortions at 20 weeks.
This month, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed into law legislation that bans abortions after 20 weeks, requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, limits medication abortions and requires all abortions take place in fully equipped surgical centers.
Such measures have cheered abortion opponents such as Nita Wallace, who lives in the Fort Worth area and has her own business. Wallace, who said she opposes abortion because “God is the maker of life,” remarked that religious Americans, such as herself, made a mistake in the past because “they didn’t get involved in politics so much, and now they’re realizing they lost ground by doing that.”
The Post-ABC survey found deep religious divisions. About two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants polled said abortion should be illegal in most or all cases; an identical 66 percent of white nonevangelicals said it should be legal. Support for allowing abortion in most or all cases peaks, at 73 percent, among Americans with no religious affiliation, and Catholics divide about evenly: 50 percent say it should be legal; 45 percent, illegal.
While abortion marks a clear dividing line between Republican and Democratic leaders, it is less straightforward for many Americans.
Mark Whitt, who works for the Estill County school system in Irvine, Ky., said he supports abortion only to save the mother’s life. Whitt said he is “a conservative Democrat, though they say there isn’t such a thing.”
Milo Schield, an Augsburg College professor who lives in Prescott, Wis., said he supports abortion access without restrictions until the 24th week of pregnancy. He questioned a new Wisconsin law that requires doctors to have hospital-admitting privileges, which Planned Parenthood said could force the closing of two of its four clinics in the state.
“There doesn’t seem to be data about whether it makes a difference to have a doctor present or hospital-admitting privileges,” said Schield, who considers himself a libertarian and is not affiliated with either major party. “I don’t know what Wisconsin’s rationale was. It’s like creationism. It’s shrouded in science but not science-based.”
Advocates on each side said the polling suggests that their side is winning the battle over public opinion.
“Polls like today’s prove again and again that championing the brutal dismemberment of children is a losing proposition among Americans,” Live Action President Lila Rose, whose group makes undercover videos of abortion clinics, wrote in an e-mail. “Americans will continue to see that the horror of abortion doesn’t vanish before 20 weeks, or 12 weeks, or 8 weeks.”
Donna Crane, vice president for policy at NARAL Pro-Choice America, said poll respondents might have given an “emotional response” when they expressed support for limiting abortion at 20 weeks. “By an even starker margin, Americans support a constitutional right to choose,” she said.
The poll was conducted July 18 to 21 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. Results from the full poll have an error margin of 3.5 percentage points.