How Americans Really Feel About Abortion

By Isabel Carter

When it comes to reproductive health, Americans express ambivalence and complicated feelings. But our nation’s two party system may be pushing legislation to the extremes despite this.

Earlier this year, nine states across the country voted to pass bans and restrictions that challenge the constitutional right to abortion established by Roe v. Wade. But according to analysis of the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey by liberal think tank Data For Progress, “There is no state in the country where support for banning abortion reaches even 25 percent.”

In 2018, Gallup reported that Americans were evenly split on the issue, with 48% identifying as “pro-choice” and 48% as “pro-life.” Broken down a bit, the same data showed that 79% of Americans felt that abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances.

”I think those terms mean different things to different people,” said Gena Frank, the legislative & political director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. She noted that her organization has aligned itself with the “pro-choice” identifier as a way of indicating that people should be able to make their own moral decisions when it comes to abortion care. “I’m ‘pro-life.’ I believe that people should be alive. That’s different from whether you think people should be able to make decisions about their own body free from government interference,” she said.

In January, a study by the research and communications firm Perry Undem found that this sort of nuance arises even among Republicans, with four in 10 self-identified Republican respondents stating that they want abortion to be legal in all or most cases and nearly half (49%) stating that they do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. Despite that, the Republican Party has incorporated anti-abortion viewpoints and language into their party platform since they first proposed the Hyde Amendment in 1976.

On the other hand, in February a Marist poll commissioned by the Catholic organization Knights of Columbus found that Democrats had become much more likely to identify as pro-life. 34% of Democrats identified themselves as “pro-life” to that survey, up fourteen points from 20% in a similar survey conducted by Marist a month before. The poll’s director, Barbara Carvalho said the results indicated a diversion from the Democratic party line: “This has been a measure that has been so stable over time. To see that kind of change was surprising.”

A month later, the numbers shifted again, with 57% of Americans identifying as pro-choice and only 35% as pro-life. Notably, this data (also collected by Marist but this time jointly commissioned by PBS Newshour and NPR) asked respondents specifically about their support for policies like this year’s wave of rollbacks on abortion rights; even among Republicans, support for so-called “fetal heartbeat” legislation that bans abortion after 6-8 weeks only reached 36%.

What can be made of all this? According to former Obama staffer Michael Wear, these findings indicate that Democratic presidential hopefuls should ease up on their “uncompromising stance” in support of abortion rights. But on the other hand, we’ve seen the Republican party successfully pass highly restrictive abortion legislation that all the data suggest is largely unpopular and even out of step with their own voting base. Almost the only thing that seems clear is that abortion is a complex issue that draws nuanced responses from the majority of the voting public. In fact, a 2018 Public Religion Research Institute survey found that 62 percent of Americans believe exactly that.

Somehow, despite Americans’ nuanced and sometimes self-contradictory opinions on abortion, Republicans like President Trump are promising to push the complicated issue further to the right, and Democrats are responding in kind. So why is that?

Well, when you look at the data again after disaggregating it by demographics like race, age, gender, and education level, you’ll find that only religious affiliation comes close to political partisanship as a strong predictor for American opinions on abortion. About six in 10 white evangelical Protestants (61%) think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. By contrast, 74% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

And as the Economist pointed out in 2018, religion and political affiliation in America do go hand in hand. 

So much so, in fact, that political scientists David Campbell and Robert Putnam (who also teaches locally at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government) have coined a new term to describe the phenomenon. They call it the “god gap.” According to their book American Grace, how religious a person is has become an increasingly political dividing line in recent decades.

The authors explain (and data from the Pew Research Center confirms this) that the growing group of people who claim no religious affiliation is the single largest group to identify as Democrats. On the other end of the spectrum, evangelicals are the largest group to identify as Republicans.

Putnam and Campbell argue that, rather than being a natural division, this stark religious polarization is the result of intentional work by conservative opinion leaders to prioritize social issues like abortion and gay marriage to build a “coalition of the religious” that skews Republican.

“I see this as an issue of compassion,” said Glenn Northern, domestic program director of Catholics for Choice. He pushed back on the notion that religiosity, especially within Catholicism, leads people to oppose abortion. “Forcing somebody to be a parent when they don’t want to be is not compassionate,” he said.

However, Steven Waldman echoed Putnam and Campbell’s claim about the god gap in his own book Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom. In Sacred Liberty, he traces the roots of the movement that eventually became the religious right. Waldman writes, “The canniest leaders understood that abortion politics could help conservatism, and vice versa.”

Returning, then, to the driving question here of why America is seeing the passage of extreme (and extremely unpopular) abortion legislation despite the population’s mostly ambivalent opinions on the issue: the answer may be that it’s a politically savvy move, even if the numbers don’t add up.