Since the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, pollsters have asked hundreds of questions about public opinion on abortion. It may be one of the most polled issues in the business’s history. Gallup, for example, has asked its three-part question about whether abortion should be “legal under any circumstances,” “legal only under certain circumstances,” or “illegal in all circumstances” more than 65 times. Pollsters that ask a four-part question “legal in all cases,” “legal in most cases,” “illegal in most cases,” or “illegal in all cases” have together asked that question more than 400 times since 1975. NORC at the University of Chicago asks about the specific circumstances in which a woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion. The organization has asked about different circumstances regularly since 1972. Several pollsters have asked people whether they are pro-life or pro-choice many times.
Given this prodigious output, it is surprising that there are some prominent gaps in the data. We know little about abortion attitudes at the state level, and we do not know a great deal about opinions on restrictions related to fetal heartbeats. Finally, we know little about abortion-adjacent issues, such as how people view the proper role of the states and the federal government in regulating abortion. Let me take these one-by-one.
Regional attitudinal differences have disappeared in many areas in public opinion, but some still exist, and abortion may be one of those topics. I say “may be” because I’m not confident I’ve seen enough data to have a good understanding of state-level attitudes. One of the consequences of news consolidation is that there are fewer state polls that are able to do in-depth, regular explorations of issues such as abortion. Given the importance of statewide issues to state pollsters, this is hardly surprising. There are a few exceptions. Quinnipiac University asked several broad questions about abortion in late spring and early summer this year and conducted a separate sample of Texans’ attitudes. Attitudes were similar. Fifty-seven percent nationally in May and 55% in Texas in June said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Thirty-seven percent nationally said it should be illegal in most or all cases, while a similar 39% of Texans’ gave this response. They also asked whether people supported or opposed “banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which is usually around 6 weeks of pregnancy.” Nationally 41% supported the ban and 48% were opposed. In Texas, those responses were 42% and 49%, respectively. In a May 2019 Gallup poll, 38% nationally favored a ban on abortion after a fetal heartbeat could be detected, while 58% were opposed.
It’s possible I missed something, but we have to go back to the 2014 Pew Religion Landscape Study to look comprehensively at state-level attitudes. Pew asked the four-part question the organization regularly uses, and found that two-thirds or more in Massachusetts (74%), Vermont (70%), DC (70%), Connecticut (67%), and New Hampshire (66%) said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Fewer than four in 10 in West Virginia (35%), Kentucky (36%), Mississippi (36%), Alabama (37%), Arkansas (38%), and Louisiana (39%) gave that response. In Texas, 45% said it should be legal in all or most cases while 50% said it should be illegal in most or all cases.
Further, while Gallup and others have explored specific restrictions over the years, the questions aren’t asked often. Take Gallup’s question on the legality of abortion in trimesters, last asked in 2018. The results each time Gallup has asked it have been consistent. Around 60% say abortion should be generally legal in the first trimester, but only around 25% give that response in the second, and slightly more than 10% in the third. Questions on parental consent, spousal notification, and waiting periods are asked infrequently. I have never seen a question about permitting enforcement of abortion law by private parties, as is the case in Texas’ new abortion law.
Finally, we have very little meaningful public opinion data on the question of state or federal responsibility in this area. AP-NORC asked in June this year whether each state government or the federal government should “have more responsibility for making laws related to abortion.” Fifty-two percent said the federal government should have a larger responsibility while 45% said each state government should. When the Pew Research Center asked a similar question in 2006, the responses were 55% national, 39% states. When the Public Religion Research Institute asked it in 2012, responses were 53% and 36%, respectively.
Overall attitudes on abortion have been relatively stable for years, although there appears to be a small uptick in recent years in the view that it should be legal in all cases. Americans have long wanted to keep abortion legal, but they have always been willing to put restrictions on its use. Only small numbers say abortion is the most important issue to them in casting their votes. Most people say it is one of many factors they will consider. Americans are both pro-life and pro-choice, believing in the sanctity of life and the importance of personal choice. Americans do not want to see Roe overturned. All of this is useful, but it doesn’t tell us a great deal about opinions in this specific Texas case. Perhaps we will see more polls in the weeks to come.