The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How do Americans really feel about abortion?

The answer is hard to pin down, for a few reasons.

Abortion rights and antiabortion protesters clash in front of the Supreme Court this week. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

As the Supreme Court seems poised to end 50 years of federal abortion rights in America, how do Americans really feel about abortion?

Answering that question is difficult, because it requires getting beyond questions about particular policies — say, six-week bans, or even whether the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling establishing a woman’s right to an abortion should stand.

Polling does consistently show that Americans support keeping Roe v. Wade — by a roughly 2-to-1 margin, in a new Washington Post/ABC News poll — but their answers on when to restrict abortion depend on how you ask about it.

For example, as The Post’s Aaron Blake explains, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey in 2019 found that a slim majority support banning abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected — but that a majority oppose such laws once they find out that that would mean banning abortion at about six weeks into pregnancy.

Pollsters say when people open up about abortion they often offer contradictory views — and the stigma around discussing this issue has left many people without the tools to do so in a nuanced way, pollsters say.

“There’s a lot beneath the surface that’s going on,” said Tresa Undem, a public opinion researcher who studies issues related to gender.

People who closely study public opinion say there are a few reasons it’s difficult to sort through Americans’ attitudes on abortion.

For a growing number of Americans, abortion is about control

For the past five years, Undem has been hearing from voters that they think about abortion less as a medical issue and more in terms of its other implications: “It’s really about power and control,” she said, “who has it, who is making these laws, who is taking these rights away, who is losing those rights, and who should have them.”

Tricia Bruce, a sociologist working with the University of Notre Dame who conducted a national survey on Americans’ attitudes on abortion in 2020, said she hears control-related language from people on both sides of the issue, such as: “We shouldn’t play God; that’s not for humans to do.” Or: “People shouldn’t tell strangers whether or not they should continue a pregnancy; that’s up to me.”

So it makes sense that Democrats are framing the recently leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court as a decision by a group of unelected judges, themselves confirmed by senators representing a minority of the population, to end a 50-year-old right affecting millions of Americans. That’s a potentially powerful political argument to make ahead of November’s midterm elections.

Undem said she finds that talking about abortion helps abortion rights supporters gain momentum: When they frame the discussion that way, they’re not on the defensive about being okay with ending a baby’s life.

Americans don’t understand much about abortion law

Viability limits, admitting privileges, Roe v. Wade, late-term abortion: These are all essential terms for understanding abortion law — and most Americans are completely clueless about them, pollsters say.

“Before this week, they had no idea there was a Supreme Court case” challenging abortion rights, Undem said.

Number of abortions that would be illegal in select areas under post-Roe rules

Number of abortions in 2019, by week of gestation

Number of abortions that would be banned post Roe

Pregnancies are generally considered to be viable between 23 and 24 weeks.

FIRST TRIMESTER

SECOND TRIMESTER

Up to 6

weeks

7-

9

10-

13

14-

15

16-

17

18-

20

Past

20

OUTLAWS ALL ABORTIONS

Mississippi

3,193 total abortions in 2019

1,117

1,421

468

171

16

0

0

If Roe falls, the state’s court-enjoined 15-week ban would give way to a total abortion ban there.

Texas

57,275 total

22,356

22,721

8,232

1,870

957

838

301

The court allowed Texas’s six-week ban to go into effect, making most abortions illegal. Its “trigger” law would ban the rest if Roe is struck down.

OUTLAWS ABORTIONS AFTER 15 WEEKS

Florida

71,914

52,850

11,641

4,843

973

691

699

217

A Florida 15-week ban is set to take effect in July. Most abortions would still be allowed under that scenario.

MAINTAINS ABORTION PROTECTIONS

New York City

49,784

22,364

17,579

5,579

1,335

897

934

1,096

Minnesota

9,799

3,597

3,845

1,381

379

194

216

187

The right to an abortion would be preserved in Minnesota.

Source: Abortions reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Aaron Steckelberg and Dan Keating/

THE WASHINGTON POST

Number of abortions that would be illegal in select areas under post-Roe rules

Number of abortions in 2019, by week of gestation

Number of abortions that would be banned post Roe

Pregnancies are generally considered to be viable between 23 and 24 weeks.

FIRST TRIMESTER

SECOND TRIMESTER

Up to 6

weeks

7-

9

10-

13

14-

15

16-

17

18-

20

Past

20

OUTLAWS ALL ABORTIONS

Mississippi

1,117

1,421

468

171

16

0

0

3,193 total

abortions

in 2019

If Roe falls, the state’s court-enjoined 15-week ban would give way to a total abortion ban there.

Texas

22,356

22,721

8,232

1,870

957

838

301

57,275

The court allowed Texas’s six-week ban to go into effect, making most abortions illegal. Its “trigger” law would ban the rest if Roe is struck down.

OUTLAWS ABORTIONS AFTER 15 WEEKS

Florida

71,914

52,850

11,641

4,843

973

691

699

217

A Florida 15-week ban is set to take effect in July. Most abortions would still be allowed under that scenario.

MAINTAINS ABORTION PROTECTIONS

New York

City

49,784

22,364

17,579

5,579

1,335

897

934

1,096

Minnesota

187

9,799

3,597

3,845

1,381

379

194

216

The right to an abortion would be preserved in Minnesota.

Source: Abortions reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Aaron Steckelberg and Dan Keating/THE WASHINGTON POST

Number of abortions that would be illegal in select areas

under post-Roe rules

Number of abortions in 2019, by week of gestation

Number of abortions that would be banned post Roe

Pregnancies are generally considered to be viable between 23 and 24 weeks.

FIRST TRIMESTER

SECOND TRIMESTER

Up to 6 weeks

7-9

10-13

14-15

16-17

18-20

Past 20 weeks

OUTLAWS ALL ABORTIONS

Mississippi

1,117

1,421

468

171

16

0

0

3,193 total

abortions

in 2019

If Roe falls, the state’s court-enjoined 15-week ban would give way to a total abortion ban there.

Texas

301

57,275

22,356

22,721

8,232

1,870

957

838

The court allowed Texas’s six-week ban to go into effect, making most abortions illegal. Its “trigger” law would ban the rest if Roe is struck down.

OUTLAWS ABORTIONS AFTER 15 WEEKS

Florida

71,914

52,850

11,641

4,843

973

691

699

217

A Florida 15-week ban is set to take effect in July. Most abortions would still be allowed under that scenario.

MAINTAINS ABORTION PROTECTIONS

New York City

22,364

17,579

5,579

1,335

897

934

49,784

1,096

Minnesota

3,597

3,845

1,381

379

194

216

187

9,799

The right to an abortion would be preserved in Minnesota.

Source: Abortions reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Aaron Steckelberg and Dan Keating/THE WASHINGTON POST

That may be because most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about abortion. Bruce said when her team sat down with people, many at first hesitated to share their thoughts, for fear of being judged. And when she asked them what comes to mind when they hear the word “abortion,” people didn’t jump to politics. Rather, she said, many immediately related personal stories about abortion or people they know who had one, or about fertility, miscarriage or even parenting.

Undem said that quite a few respondents in her surveys express empathy for abortion patients: She found that 67 percent of women of childbearing age say they can envision a scenario in which abortion might be the right decision for them — and about as many voters say there should be less shame around abortion.

“That’s not to say Americans are ignorant about the issue of abortion,” Bruce said. “But we have these available frames to talk about it that are relatively thin — and then there’s a huge amount of stigma that surrounds both abortion and pregnancy, and then there’s this fraught political climate, all of which contributes to Americans’ hesitancy to engage in these conversations. So they, by and large, don’t.”

That makes polling — which often asks about specific laws or cases — very difficult.

People say they’ve made their minds up on abortion

Undem said most people she talks to have made up their minds on the issue: “I ask, do you struggle with your views on abortion? Seventy-seven percent of voters say no,” she said.

“For the majority of pro-choice women in the country now, when this issue comes up, it’s already on their radar,” Undem added. “It’s personal, and it’s a proxy for women’s rights.”

But even as Americans say they know how they stand on the issue, they also offer contradictory views about when abortion should be legal, and surveys suggest that Americans aren’t as cleanly divided into clear antiabortion and abortion rights camps as is often believed. Bruce says that in her research she has spoken to many Americans who don’t identify as Democrat or Republican, and has found that many Americans have views on abortion that don’t necessarily fit a partisan profile.

Undem said her research suggests that the news this week may mobilize voters who support abortion rights, because politicians can cast abortion as a right central to women’s autonomy that is being taken away.

Bruce can see it going both ways. In the decades after Roe, she said, antiabortion activists have been extremely politically active because they believe God is on their side. And that might continue now that they see a victory on the horizon. But she wonders whether the potential end of Roe v. Wade will wake up the “sleeping giant” of Americans who do want some kind of abortion access but until now have never felt motivated to advocate for it.

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