Both capital punishment and abortion are complicated things. Many Americans have strong feelings about each, but recognize circumstances in which their views might shift: Abortion opponents might make an exception for the health of the woman; capital punishment supporters draw different lines on where it is applied.
There is one question that comes up regularly in conversations about abortion and, particularly, in consideration of the term “pro-life” — a term used by abortion opponents to summarize their position. Given that abortion opponents tend to be Republican and given that Republicans are also often supportive of capital punishment, how many people view the two issues in a superficially consistent way? That is, how many people supportive of capital punishment are also supportive of the right to have an abortion? And how many people who oppose abortion also oppose capital punishment?
It’s an interesting question less because of what it tells us about logical consistency. After all, the myriad considerations that come into play for views of both capital punishment and abortion generally renders distillations such as “pro-life” overly simplistic. It’s an interesting question, instead, because it seems as though there should be consistency, but that partisanship would seem to make members of both parties, to some extent, hypocrites.
As it turns out, that’s not really the case. Using the term “consistent” very loosely to refer to opposition or support for both capital punishment and abortion, we find that about half the country has held a “consistent” position since the late 1970s. What’s more, that’s true regardless of political party.
This is striking in part because of how views of both capital punishment and abortion have evolved. Each was legalized nationally in the 1970s, with the Roe v. Wade decision decided in 1973 and a brief prohibition on the death penalty being lifted by the Supreme Court in 1976. Since the mid-1990s, views of both have shifted, with capital punishment becoming less popular (according to the biennial General Social Survey, or GSS) and abortion support increasing.
Again, it’s important to note the qualifiers for the questions asked by the GSS. The question about capital punishment is specifically about murder convictions — not other violent crimes. The question about abortion I used here centers on the broadest availability. As I’ve written before, support for abortion in the event that the woman’s health is at risk is far higher.
In 1977, the first year in which both of these questions were asked on the GSS, about 28 percent of Americans supported both capital punishment and abortion for any reason. About 19 percent opposed both. The bulk of the rest of the country thought that capital punishment was acceptable but abortion was not. About four times as many people supported the death penalty and opposed broadly legal abortion as supported abortion and opposed capital punishment.
And then that changed.
By 2021, the most recent year for which survey data is available, the percentages of Americans who support one but not the other were about equivalent. The drop in support for capital punishment and the increase in support for abortion is manifested in the top-right and bottom-left quadrants of the charts above. Notice that the other quadrants didn’t really change. About the same percentages of Americans held “consistent” views on abortion and capital punishment.
Interestingly, the segment of those who oppose abortion who also oppose capital punishment was 41 percent in 2021, the highest percentage on record. The segment of those who support abortion and also support capital punishment was 51 percent — the lowest on record.
Again, the percentage of Americans who hold “consistent” views on these issues has not been very volatile. Just under half of the country has indicated to the GSS since 1977 that they support both capital punishment for murder convictions and abortion for any reason or that they oppose both.
This is one of those things that I’m not sure what to do with. This idea that Americans ought to have some sort of consistent position on abortion and capital punishment is often itself a rhetorical and partisan one. This is absolutely a cop-out, and I’ll just own it.
Perhaps most interesting to me is the 2021 chart on views of abortion and capital punishment. It shows an electorate that’s almost perfectly split among the four quadrants. No wonder these issues are so contentious.