The possible reversal of Roe v. Wade raises all kinds of questions about the future of abortion provision in the United States. Since the early 1970s, sociologists have asked a representative sample of American households a few specific questions about abortion over and over again. The General Social Survey, or GSS, was established in 1972. Most years since, respondents have been asked whether “it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion” under a variety of circumstances. This graph shows trends for six of these questions.
The panels show the percentage of respondents answering “Yes” in each case, from 1977 to 2018. The first three graphs show that some circumstances have always commanded a very high level of agreement. About 90 percent of Americans agree that abortion should be available when the woman’s health is seriously endangered. About 75 percent say it should be legal in cases of pregnancy due to rape, or when there is a strong chance of a serious birth defect. The very stable, very high consensus on these points is easily overlooked.
The bottom three graphs show agreement about whether legal abortion should be available if the woman believes she cannot afford more children, if she does not want any more children, or simply for any reason she has. These questions give us some insight into how difficult it is to track opinion over time.
The first two questions were originally asked in 1972. The one about wanting no more children refers specifically to married women. It was asked along with another question (not shown here) in which the reason is “The woman is single.” Questions connecting abortion to marital status are less relevant now than they once were. But as sociologists like to remark, the difficulty with long-run data collection is that if you want to measure change, you can’t change the measure.
Over time, these answers have probably come to reflect the general orientation of respondents to abortion more than opinions about the specific question of marital status. For these reasons, the GSS began exploring some new questions about abortion a couple of years ago. Sarah Cowan and Michael Hout, sociologists at New York University, provide an initial overview.
Still, the great strength of the GSS is its consistency. This makes the final question particularly interesting. Should a pregnant woman be able to obtain a legal abortion for any reason? When it was first asked, in 1977, about 38 percent of respondents said “Yes.” By 2018, this had crept up to almost exactly 50 percent of those giving an answer. (Only about 3 or 4 percent don’t have an opinion.) The most recent GSS saw the proportion go up again.
As bumper stickers go, “Abortion on demand for any reason” is pretty direct, even confrontational. And yet, while a position like this would undoubtedly be represented in the media and in politics as being out on the far end of the spectrum of opinion, there is good evidence that it has the support of half the country.
Kieran Healy (@kjhealy) is a professor of sociology at Duke University.