Attitudes about abortion

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Protesters gather at the "Rally to Restore Sanity," including Pro-Choice America

Attitudes about Abortion

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IIn the 38 years since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, pollsters have asked hundreds of questions about abortion. This AEI Public Opinion Study brings many of those questions together in one place. It shows how different pollsters have approached the subject.

Opinion on abortion has been very stable. Between 1975 and 2009, Gallup has asked the identical question on abortion more than 40 times. In 1975, 21 percent said abortion should be legal under all circumstances, 54 percent legal only under certain circumstances, and 22 percent illegal in all circumstances. Those responses in Gallup’s May 2010 poll were 24, 54, and 19 percent, respectively. This constancy of opinion is evident on many questions in this document.

Although opinion about abortion is stable, it is also deeply ambivalent. Americans are at once pro-life and pro-choice. On the one hand, substantial numbers tell the pollsters that abortion is an act of murder. On the other, they say that the decision to have an abortion should be a personal choice. Those two views are fundamentally contradictory, yet many Americans hold them within themselves. They see no reason to resolve the tensions in their own positions. They believe in the sanctity of life and in the importance of individual choice.

Most Americans do not want to overturn Roe v. Wade. At the same time, however, they are willing to put significant restrictions on abortion. Majorities of Americans favor notification of spouses, parental consent, and 24-hour waiting periods. They support first-term abortions, but oppose second and third trimester ones. They oppose public funding.

Ninety percent of Americans told Los Angeles Times interviewers in 2000 that they had never been active in the abortion debate. Between 1980 and 2000, in every presidential election, abortion was included in the list of issues people could pick as a top issue (or one of the issues for them) in casting their presidential ballot. In each of these presidential contests, these single-issue voters cast their ballots for the Republican presidential candidate. In 2004 and 2008, the exit pollsters did not include abortion as a category people could check as their top issue. In 2004, the Los Angeles Times did include the category ―social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. We have not included that question in this document.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI

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