On Solid Ground: Over 35 Years, Abortion Polls Show Remarkable Consistency

Article excerpt

AMERICANS HAVE ACTIVELY DEBATED THE abortion issue since the 1973 US Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade declared that the right to privacy extends to a woman's right to decide whether to have an abortion.

At every turn, opponents and advocates of abortion rights have fought on the federal and state levels about restrictions to limit access to abortion--from poster-wielding antiabortion activists blocking clinic access to legislators writing laws requiring parental consent for teens seeking an abortion and outlawing certain medical procedures, among many other examples. Defenders of abortion rights have won some and lost some-including important Supreme Court decisions. For example, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the court struck down a Pennsylvania law that required notification of the husband prior to an abortion but left in place requirements for parental consent, informed consent, and a 24-hour waiting period. More recently in 2007, in Gonzalez v. Carhart, the justices moved in a more conservative direction, leaving in place a federal ban on a particular abortion procedure without allowing for an exception for women's health--even though in 2000 a more moderate Supreme Court had struck down a similar law.

Through the last 35 years, however, the support for legal abortion among the American public has not deteriorated. In 1973 after the Roe v. Wade decision, Louis Harris & Associates found 52 percent favored "the US Supreme Court decision making abortion up to three months of pregnancy legal" and 41 percent opposed it. Support and opposition has moved up and down marginally in Harris polling, dipping to 47 percent in favor and 44 percent opposed in 1974 and rising to 60 percent in favor and 37 percent opposed in 1979, before settling back down to 56 percent in favor/40 percent opposed in 2007--virtually the same as in 1973.

Other surveys lead to the same conclusion. Our firm has asked whether Americans agreed or disagreed that "it should be legal for a woman to have an abortion" four times since 1998--always finding six in ten agreeing (four in ten strongly) and a third disagreeing (a quarter strongly). See Table Two.

In another example, polling for ABC News and the Washington Post has shown virtually no change in the aggregate levels of support and opposition to abortion in the last 10 years among registered voters. In 1996, 24 percent of voters said they thought abortion should be legal in all cases and 34 percent legal in most cases, 25 percent illegal in most, and 14 percent illegal in all. In 2008, the ABC/Washington Post poll obtained virtually the same result: 21 percent legal in all cases, 36 percent legal in most, 25 percent illegal in most, and 15 percent illegal in all.

Interestingly, as Table Three shows, the numbers move around if one looks at polls from month to month within a given year--and this often excites advocates and opponents. However, on average, the numbers reflect a remarkably consistent outcome: about two in ten voters in the most liberal position, more than a third in the "legal in most" category, a quarter in "illegal in most," and only 15 percent or so rejecting abortion altogether.

There are several ways to look at these figures that have long been part of the discussions about how Americans view abortion rights. One is that fewer Americans, or voters in the case of ABC/Washington Post poll in Table Three, place themselves in the extreme positions (all cases legal or illegal) than in the middle "legal in most cases" position. Another way to look at the results is that more than half support a fairly liberal position (legal in all or most cases).

Further evidence of the static state of attitudes on abortion comes from the fact that when survey questions asking about different aspects of the issue are included in polls repeatedly, they too obtain similar results year to year. The CBS News/New York Times poll has asked the general public: "Which comes closest to your view? …