The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Roe v. Wade faces demise, support for abortion rights hits new highs

At the same time, the minority that supports overturning Roe appears to have also grown — reinforcing the polarization of the issue

A leaked draft opinion on May 2 shows that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn federal abortion protections. Here's what would happen. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

The Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade any day now. The court is gradually releasing its opinions for this term, and a recently leaked draft opinion suggested Roe is on the chopping block.

And when or if the court does so, its decision will be announced even as support for abortion rights has exceeded or matched previous highs in several new polls.

Almost all of the polls, which were conducted after Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson leaked a month ago, show support for abortion rights at least virtually tied with previous highs. But most also show it exceeding the support registered in previous polls. It’s not clear that this rise is because of the leaked opinion, but the intersection is notable.

A brief summary of the findings:

  • A Gallup poll released late last week showed the percentage of Americans who view abortion as “morally acceptable” has crested a majority (52 percent) for the first time since at least 2001. Those saying abortion is “morally” wrong has dropped from around 50 percent, where it has hovered for most of the 21st century, to 38 percent today. And the percentage of Americans identifying as “pro-choice” has hit 55 percent — the highest since 1995 (56 percent).
  • A Wall Street Journal-NORC poll released late last week showed new highs in support for access to abortion if the woman can’t afford more children (59 percent) or simply wants one for any reason (57 percent). Both had been below majority support for nearly four decades until recent years.
  • An NBC News poll last month showed a new high in the percentage who say abortion should always be legal (37 percent) and should be legal in at least most cases (60 percent). As recently as 2013, around half of Americans said abortion should be illegal in most cases.
  • An NPR-PBS-Marist College poll last month showed that 6 in 10 want abortion to be legal in at least the first three months of a pregnancy, compared with about 5 in 10 in 2019.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, conversely, showed little change since 2019; around 6 in 10 said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. But it was conducted shortly before the leak, and the level of support for abortion rights both in 2019 and today tracked with the highest levels in the poll since the mid-1990s.

About the only major poll suggesting little or no change after the leaked opinion came from Monmouth University. Conducted very shortly after the opinion leaked, it showed a consistent 64 percent saying abortion should be legal with some limitations.

So why has support for abortion rights risen in almost all of these post-leak polls? It appears to be driven mostly by Democrats. Gallup showed 7 in 10 Democrats identified as “pro-choice” a year ago, but that number is now approaching 9 in 10. The number of Democrats who say abortion should be legal in most cases has increased from 69 percent to 82 percent.

The number of independents supporting abortion in most cases rose slightly — from 44 percent to 51 percent — but not as much as with Democrats. There was almost no change among Republicans.

In other words, abortion is now an even more polarized issue. The middle generally supports abortion rights more than it opposes them — and its support has increased slightly — but we haven’t seen some broad-scale shift among all Americans.

Which brings us to Roe. While support for abortion rights does appear to have grown, it doesn’t appear to have registered as much when it comes to support for the landmark abortion rights decision. As much as two-thirds of Americans have long supported upholding Roe, but some polls suggest support for it might even have declined slightly of late:

  • The NBC poll showed a slight decline in support for not overturning Roe — 63 percent — compared with 2013 (70 percent) and 2018 (71 percent).
  • The Marist poll showed a slight shift in favor of overturning Roe (33 percent) relative to 2020 (27 percent).
  • The pre-leak Post-ABC poll showed 54 percent supported upholding Roe, compared with around 6 in 10 in 2020 and 2021.
  • The Monmouth poll showed 36 percent would like to “revisit” Roe, compared with 31 percent in September.

“Revisit” could be read a number of ways, including potentially expanding abortion rights beyond Roe and a case affirming it, Planned Parenthood v. Casey. But the other polls suggest a bit of a narrowing gap on overturning Roe, even as support for abortion rights has increased.

As always with Roe, there’s the question of how much people truly understand it. Overturning it would send the issue back to the states, rather than outlawing abortion (though many red states seem poised to outlaw it, and some have already passed “trigger laws” that would immediately do so). It seems possible that people have come to understand that ending Roe wouldn’t necessarily eliminate abortion rights nationwide — so those who oppose legal abortion in most cases (but who might support allowing it in certain, narrow circumstances, such as in cases involving rape or incest) have rallied to the cause of overturning it.

But if and when the legislators take that support and channel it into abortion bans, they will be doing something that a strong majority of Americans don’t like — and apparently an increasingly strong majority, at that.

The words politicians use to talk about abortion have shifted away from medical significance and shaped the way we think about the procedure. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)