Abortion and public opinion: what the surveys really say

Pro-lifers rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 1, 2021. Pro-lifers rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 1, 2021. | Rena Schild via Shutterstock.

Public polling about abortion has taken on new prominence with the U.S. Supreme Court expected to change legal abortion precedent like Roe v. Wade. But the actual beliefs of Americans — and, in particular, Catholic Americans — on specific policies and protections for the unborn often show sympathy for pro-life stands that Roe v. Wade disallows.

“Many Americans are conflicted about abortion. As such, the results of many surveys and polls on the issue of abortion are very sensitive to how questions are worded,” political scientist Michael New told CNA on June 8.

New is a research associate at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, a pro-life research and education institute.

“In particular, I think that polling about Roe v. Wade provides little insight about American attitudes toward abortion,” New added. “That is because many Roe v. Wade polls fail to explain that Roe v. Wade effectively legalized abortion on demand in all 50 states for all nine months of pregnancy. This is a policy position that only a small percentage of Americans share.”

What pollsters should tell survey participants

The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and related precedents are now up for reconsideration at the U.S. Supreme Court. On May 2, a leak of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion in the case Dobbs v. Jackson became public and indicated the court was set to overturn Roe v. Wade.

New said polls on Roe v. Wade should explain that reversing the decision would not ban abortion everywhere, but instead return it to the states.

“Pollsters and survey research firms should ask more questions about specific types of pro-life laws, including limits on taxpayer funding for abortion, parental involvement laws, and gestational age limits,” said New. “The results of these polls show that majorities of Americans are sympathetic with many of the policy goals of the pro-life movement.”

The Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey reported that 63% of Catholic respondents to its survey said abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 68% of Catholics said Roe v. Wade should be left as it is. The Catholic figures are in line with American opinion as a whole, the Associated Press said.

The AP-NORC poll of 1,172 adults, 358 of whom self-identified as Catholic, was conducted on May 12-16, just after the leak of the draft Supreme Court decision. It claimed a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points for all respondents and plus or minus 7.4% for Catholic respondents.

To the question of whether abortion should be legal in all or most cases, 63% of Catholics said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a view held by 74% of mainline Protestants and only 25% of evangelical Protestants.

The AP-NORC poll reported that 68% of Catholic respondents said they attend religious services once a month or less.

About 37% said they were attending less often than they did five years ago, while 14% said they were attending more often.

Church attendance is a major factor

New said that strong religious practice, more than religious self-identification, is associated with stronger views against abortion.

“One problem with most of the polls on Catholic attitudes toward abortion is that they do not look at Mass attendance,” he said. “In general, religion is not a strong predictor of public opinion toward abortion. However, consistent church attendance is correlated with greater pro-life sentiment. As such, Catholics who attend Mass weekly tend to be much more pro-life the Catholics who only attend Mass occasionally.”

A March survey from the Pew Research Center provides another perspective on public opinion. Among its respondents, 76% of Catholics said abortion should be legal in some cases but illegal in others, 10% said abortion should be illegal in all cases, and 13% said it should be legal in all cases.

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The survey reported that 42% of Catholics said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while 56% believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Among weekly Mass attendees, 68% said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while 30% said it should be legal. About 24% of weekly Mass attendees said abortion should be illegal in all cases, compared to 10% of all U.S. Catholics and 8% of all U.S. adults.

At the same time, 44% of all U.S. Catholics said that the statement “human life begins at conception, so a fetus is a person with rights” describes their views “extremely/very well,” including 70% of Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more. About 38% of all surveyed U.S. adults shared this view, though 42% said that statement describes their views “not too well” or “not well at all.”

Strong majorities of U.S. adults and all U.S. Catholics told Pew they supported legal abortion if the life or health of a woman is threatened, though only about half of weekly Mass-goers did.

Critics of legal abortion tend to argue that health exceptions for abortion end up allowing abortion for any reason.

The Pew survey took place on March 7-13. It surveyed 10,441 U.S. adults and 2,224 Catholics. It claims a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points for responses from U.S. adults and plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for responses from Catholics.

Opinion on Roe v. Wade

In January 2022, a Knights of Columbus/Marist Poll survey reported that more than 60% of Americans disagree with the central holding of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

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The survey reported that 44% said that the Supreme Court should leave abortion up to each individual state and 17% said the court should make abortion illegal.

About 42% of respondents said abortion should be limited at “the point at which a fetus can feel pain,” while 36% said abortion limits should apply at “the point at which a fetus can live outside the womb.”

About 63% opposed or strongly opposed new federal rules that allowed abortion-inducing prescription drugs to be sent through the mail rather than provided in-person through a certified health care provider.

More than half of respondents opposed taxpayer funding for abortion in the U.S. and a strong majority opposed taxpayer funding for abortions in other countries.

The Marist Poll surveyed 1,004 U.S. adults from Jan. 4-9. It claims a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.

A Gallup survey released in early June said that only 39% of respondents identified as pro-life, the lowest since 1996, while 56% identified as pro-choice, the highest since 1995.

The news cycle shapes responses

New suggested that a more detailed approach would provide more information about what Americans believe. The Gallup survey, he said, asks respondents every year if they are “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” But the survey has asked about gestational age limits for abortion only seven times in the last 26 years.

“Even though Gallup asks questions about gestational age limits infrequently, the results consistently show that strong majorities of Americans oppose abortion after the first trimester,” New explained.

“The results of the most recent Gallup poll, which was conducted in May 2022, found that 55% of Americans think that abortion should be ‘generally illegal’ during the second trimester and 71% of Americans think that abortion should be generally illegal during the third trimester.”

The news cycle can play a role in influencing survey responses, New said. Gallup’s survey and others were largely conducted after Justice Alito’s draft opinion in an abortion case.

“Since most of the subsequent media coverage was not sympathetic to the pro-life position, it is not surprising that there was a gain in sentiment in favor of legal abortion,” said New.

He saw an increase in pro-life sentiment during the 1990s debate over banning partial-birth abortion and the 2013 murder trial of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell. There was an increase in pro-abortion rights sentiment in the late 1980s and early 1990s when some believed the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade.