Public Opinion on Abortion 29 December 2021.

            In 1973 the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its Roe v. Wade decision. 

Both parties assign a high emotional and moral value to the question of abortion.  Religious belief is most strong in the South.  Among Evangelical Christians, 65 percent oppose legal abortions in all or almost all cases.  Less than two-thirds (59 percent) of Southern Democrats believe that abortion should be legal under most conditions.  Roe v. Wade, far more than Brown v. Board, may have been what mobilized Southerners to desert the Democratic Party.[1]   As Republicans pursued their own “Southern strategy,” they found that they had to “shake hands with the Savior” in the form of the evangelicals. 

At first, the tide continued to run against abortion restriction.  In 1991, 42 percent of Democrats believed that abortion should be legal whenever a woman wanted one; so did 41 percent of Republicans.  This position exceeded the Roe standard.  Then the tide turned. 

Today, 60 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal through the first trimester or even into the second trimester.  This retreats from the Roe v. Wade standard.  Only about 29 percent of people think that abortion should be illegal in all or almost all situations. 

            Nevertheless, over the last thirty years, the country has become more polarized beneath the surface of this broad consensus.  In 2018, one reliable survey found that 92 percent of college-educated and self-identified “’liberal” Democrats believed that a woman should be able to obtain an abortion at any time and for any reason.  Again, about 29 percent of people think that abortion should be illegal in all or almost all situations. 

Most people are somewhere in between and roughly on the ground marked out by Roe fifty years ago.  In 2018, among self-identified “moderate” Republicans, 39 percent believed that a woman should able to get an abortion in all or most cases.  Among self-identified “moderate” Democrats 55 percent believed this.[2]  Abortion is so much NOT a Make-Or-Break issue for about a quarter (26 percent) of Americans, that they don’t share the position of the presidential candidates for whom they voted in 2020.[3]  This crowd—it’s wrong to call it a group—consists of more religious Democrats,[4] less religious Republicans, and secular Trump voters.[5] 

One possible explanation is that different people assign a greater or lesser importance to the question than do others.  For the moment, the majority is caught in a struggle between two opposed groups of abortion maximalists.  For both of these groups, abortion is an essential question.  For everyone else, it is a secondary question.  Essentially, most voters hold their nose and go along on their candidate’s view on abortion in order to get something else that they value more highly.  An expanded “safety net” say, or packing the courts. 


[1] This isn’t the conventional text-book interpretation.  However, school integration could be—and was—dealt with through establishing lots of private schools, white flight, and the artful construction of transportation infrastructure.  Legalized abortion could not be addressed in this way.  Campaigns for “marriage equality” and insane “common sense” gun control laws just poured gasoline on the fire. 

[2] This suggests that 60 percent of “moderate” Republicans and 45 percent of “moderate” Democrats shared the position that abortion should not be legal or weren’t sure.  How many Democrats or Republicans identify as “moderate”? 

[3] Nate Cohn, “On Abortion, Public Is Not as Polarized as Parties,” NYT, 12 December 2021. 

[4] Many of them Black or Hispanic. 

[5] One poll showed that 37 percent of Trump voters in Pennsylvania and Michigan supported mostly legal abortion. 

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