Americans Largely Agree on Abortion Limits
In order to properly understand how Americans feel about abortion, one must take into account that their views are more complex than simple up-or-down polls about the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling suggest.
Lately, I am seeing poll after poll about Americans’ attitudes toward abortion, many having to do with support for Roe v. Wade itself. Some suggest that Americans are extremely polarized when it comes to the issue. Take, for example, 2018 polling that shows Americans are evenly divided in terms of self-identifying as pro-life or pro-choice. But equating support for abortion rights and Roe, or dividing Americans into two opposing camps, is highly misleading and unhelpful.
Polls that dig a little deeper into Americans’ views when it comes to restrictions on abortion provide more nuance and insight into where the public truly stands. Polls that do delve more deeply show that support for unfettered abortion, which Roe allowed, just isn’t there.
That court ruling legalized overnight abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy. It left to the states, however, regulating abortions during the second and third trimesters. So, Roe was in effect the beginning—not the end—of a national conversation about the legal limits of abortion, especially in the second and third trimesters.
However, polls show that Americans generally do not support the right to abortion later in pregnancy. Marist asked specifically about later abortions and found Americans heavily favor restrictions during the last two trimesters. Seventy-six percent of Americans said they would like to see abortion restricted to the first three months of pregnancy—and even a majority (60 percent) of those who self-identify as pro-choice favor such restrictions. Those numbers have been more or less consistent for the past decade. So, there is in fact a lot more consensus on abortion than what is generally reported.
A recent Gallup poll shows consistency in American attitudes towards limits on abortion. Eighty-one percent of respondents said that abortion should be generally illegal in the third trimester, while 65 percent said it should generally be illegal in the second trimester.
Polls also reveal how Americans feel about different circumstances surrounding the decision to abort a child. Broadly speaking, a majority thought the procedure should be legal only under certain circumstances. The poll asked about several specific circumstances ranging from “when the woman’s life is endangered” to “when the woman does not want the child for any reason.” Gallup found that 77 percent thought abortion in the third trimester for any reason at all should be illegal. Sixty-eight percent thought abortion should be illegal in the third trimester when the child would be born with Down syndrome.
American laws are not just out of step with public opinion on the matter, they are out of step with the rest of the world as well. The United States is just one of seven countries, including China and North Korea, that permit abortion on demand after 20 weeks’ gestation.
If we look closely at polling data that does more than scratch the surface, we can find large majorities in agreement about whether and how to limit abortion. The vast majority of Americans would like to restrict—at a minimum—late-term, elective abortion. It’s time our laws catch up to the American consensus.