Abortion is back at the Supreme Court yet again. For the third time in six years, the justices will consider the constitutionality of a state law designed to restrict abortion — this time, a Mississippi ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. And because the court is more conservative than it’s been in decades, many experts believe there’s a real possibility that the justices will use this case to overturn — or at least severely limit — the constitutional right to abortion established in 1973 by Roe v. Wade.
Roe may be one of the only Supreme Court decisions that most Americans can identify. In all likelihood, it’s more familiar to the average voter than the names of any justice currently serving on the Supreme Court. Surprisingly, though, trying to understand what Americans think about abortion rights — and how they’d react if Roe was reversed or reshaped — can feel like walking into a fogbank.
Ask Americans whether Roe should be overruled, and the answer seems pretty straightforward: Polls consistently find that a majority think the Supreme Court should keep the ruling in place. But Americans’ views on abortion are hardly clear-cut. Majorities also support a variety of restrictions on abortion — including limits on abortion in the second trimester — that openly conflict with the Supreme Court’s rulings. For example, a 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 69 percent of Americans favored laws requiring abortions to be performed only by doctors who had admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, even though the court ruled in 2016 that those laws place an unconstitutional burden on women’s right to abortion.
Why is it so hard to distill views on an issue that’s been at the forefront of American politics for nearly five decades? Given the longstanding, intractable division on abortion, one might think that Americans hold murky views because they’re actively, even painfully, wrestling with the matter. But that’s not what I found when I dug into the issue. The truth is that many Americans just don’t like talking or thinking about abortion.
They also don’t know a lot about the procedure or restrictions around it, and when it comes to the politics of abortion, they see an endless loop. In interviews, people told me over and over again that they want the country to find a quiet middle ground — yet the debate keeps getting more heated and extreme.
“Fuck no, I don’t talk to people about abortion,” said Jeremy, a 34-year-old man who asked me not to disclose his last name and location. “I have other political discussions with my friends, and we can do pretty well on that. But the second I would say, ‘I think there should be reasonable limits on abortion after the first trimester,’ people would jump down my throat.”
Abortion also isn’t an especially high political priority for people like Jeremy, despite — or perhaps because of — its ubiquitousness. In a YouGov/The Economist poll conducted in October, only 4 percent of Americans ranked abortion as their top issue, coming in behind jobs and the economy, climate change, immigration, health care, taxes and civil rights. “I think people are tired [of this issue] and they hate it at election time,” said Tresa Undem, a researcher at the nonpartisan firm PerryUndem who studies attitudes toward abortion. “They think politicians are pandering for votes.” Instead, according to Undem, many Americans think both sides of the debate are right — and wrong. “It’s kind of like, ‘Yes, abortion is ending a potential life, and yes, women should be able to make a choice. Move on.’”
Most Americans fall into a gray zone on abortion
Overall, perspectives on abortion tend to fall into three main camps. The first camp is a relatively small chunk of Americans (about 10 to 15 percent) who think abortion should be illegal in all cases. The second camp is a larger minority (about 25 to 30 percent) who want abortion to be legal in all cases. And the third camp is the majority of Americans (about 55 to 65 percent), who fall into a gray area, telling pollsters that they want abortion to be legal in some or most cases. That final category is all over the place, as it includes both people who think abortion should be legal only in cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is at risk, as well as people who think abortion should be legal with only limited restrictions, perhaps for minors or for abortions in later stages of pregnancy.
It may be hard to know how most people really feel about abortion, but one important takeaway from this data is that the vast majority of Americans — somewhere between 85 and 90 percent, according to most polls — think abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances. Total bans on abortion, which have now passed in three states, are popular only with a small sliver of the public.
But most Americans support at least some restrictions on abortion, too. “I lean more toward the pro-life side of things, and I don’t think abortion is something that should just be available to everyone all the time, but I also don’t like how everyone is so extreme,” said Amanda, 38. She asked me to withhold identifying information, such as her last name and location, because she feels caught between her family, which is staunchly anti-abortion, and her liberal friends. When I asked her where the line should be drawn, she suggested a ban on abortion somewhere between 12 and 20 weeks. “I think that would be a good, moderate middle ground,” she said.
Clearly identifying an acceptable middle ground on abortion isn’t easy for most people to do, though. That’s in part because many Americans don’t know much about abortion to begin with, and perhaps as a result, their views aren’t usually more specific than a belief that the procedure should be available in at least some cases.
For instance, Gallup has consistently found that while a majority (around 60 percent) of Americans thought abortion should be generally legal in the first trimester of pregnancy, much smaller shares thought abortion should be generally legal in the second trimester (nearly 30 percent), although Roe protects the right to abortion until the last few weeks of the second trimester, when the fetus may be able to survive outside the womb.
These contradictions show up elsewhere, too. According to polls by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist and the General Social Survey, Americans are much likelier to support abortion rights when the woman’s health is endangered than if she wants an abortion for another reason. The NPR poll found that 61 percent of respondents favored a level of restriction beyond the current standard under Roe. And the 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that Americans mostly supported some restrictions on abortion access, like a mandatory ultrasound before an abortion can be obtained. But that same Kaiser also poll found that only 28 percent of Americans thought it was too easy to get an abortion, and a majority (61 percent) wanted their state to protect women’s access to abortion. A 2016 Vox/PerryUndem survey found that majorities of Americans also thought that women should be able to get a legal abortion in their own community, without facing pressure to change their mind.
Lack of knowledge about reproductive health in general is a huge issue for researchers like Kristen Jozkowski, a professor of sexual health at Indiana University, who are trying to figure out what Americans think about abortion. “People don’t understand something as basic as gestational age,” Jozkowski said. That makes it quite difficult to figure out what they think about, for instance, a 15-week abortion ban, which requires a fairly nuanced understanding of how pregnancies develop.
In general, Americans think abortions happen later in a pregnancy than they typically do — and very few know that only a small share of abortions happen late in pregnancy. Many people think abortions are much less safe than they are, too. And according to the Vox/PerryUndem survey, most aren’t aware of what abortion restrictions are on the books in their own area. A 2020 study focusing on women found that respondents correctly answered only 18 percent of questions about abortion regulations in their state.
Most people also aren’t aware of what would happen in their own state if Roe v. Wade were overturned. According to that 2020 Kaiser poll, only 38 percent of people living in states with “trigger laws” knew that abortion would immediately become illegal in their state, and only 35 percent of people in states without trigger laws knew that abortion would stay legal. This means that when people are answering questions about whether Roe should be overturned, most don’t have an accurate sense of what reversing the ruling would mean for their state and community.
So, when people are surveyed about whether they support a specific abortion restriction, they often lack key information that would shape their answer. On that same Kaiser poll, for instance, support for an abortion ban after fetal cardiac activity can be detected dropped from 49 percent to 38 percent after respondents were told that many women don’t know they’re pregnant at that point. Similarly, support for an admitting privileges requirement also fell from 69 percent to 52 percent after respondents were told that complications from abortion are very rare and that, when they do happen, women can get hospital care regardless of whether the abortion provider has admitting privileges.
Simple things like one’s own life experience can also shape people’s perspectives. Rachael, 40, who asked me to withhold her last name and location, said that although she supports abortion rights, she understood why someone would want to ban abortion “a bit better” after she had children. “Once you’ve had a relationship with someone that’s not born, it’s easier to feel that sense of like – this is a life, this is a human being.”
And in many cases, people’s responses may appear ambiguous because they think they simply shouldn’t be making the call about such a personal decision — and neither should politicians. According to an ABC News/The Washington Post poll conducted in early November, 75 percent of Americans thought abortion should be left to a woman and her doctor, while only 20 percent thought it should be regulated by law. Beverly, who lives in Ohio and asked me to withhold her last name and other identifying details, said that she personally thought it was wrong for someone to have an abortion because they thought they couldn’t afford to have a child, but that she still thought abortion should be legal. “I wish politicians would see moral issues as being out of scope for them. It’s not what they were selected for,” she said.
Abortion isn’t a high priority for most Americans, either
It’s taken as gospel these days that abortion is a high political priority, but that’s only true for a small subset of people. Polling routinely shows that when Americans are asked to rank their political priorities, abortion falls low on the list. And that actually makes sense, given that most Americans don’t have especially well-formed views on abortion, and many in that middle gray area tend to think the issue is already too political, and that the parties don’t represent them.
Abigail Lilly, 29, who lives in West Virginia, told me that she didn’t see her position reflected in the political debate over abortion. “The more conservative [perspective] I’ve heard recently is ‘No abortion whatsoever,’” she said, adding that, as a rape survivor, such a view was particularly difficult for her to understand. “I couldn’t imagine having gotten pregnant from that and being forced to carry that child.” But she was also in favor of some limits on abortion, and she disagreed with what she saw as the position of many on the left — namely, that abortion should be legal at any point during a pregnancy. In reality, abortion after 21 weeks of pregnancy is extremely rare, and even in blue states, it tends to occur only in extreme circumstances, such as when the mother’s health is endangered or when the fetus isn’t viable. But much of the recent debate has focused on abortions later in pregnancy.
And then there’s the fact that many people simply don’t think abortion rights are in imminent danger. A YouGov/Economist poll conducted in November found that only 13 percent of Americans thought that it was very likely that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe. It also found that while most (81 percent) Americans said they’d heard at least something about the new law in Texas — which that bans abortion before many women know they’re pregnant — a much smaller share (43 percent) had heard about the Mississippi law, which is going before the Supreme Court today.
According to Undem, it’s unusual for abortion issues to catch the average American’s attention. “There has to be sustained news coverage for it to break through,” she said. That helps explain why abortion access has been so successfully curtailed over the past ten years, with very little public outcry. Many people who support abortion rights in the abstract don’t follow the issue closely and almost certainly haven’t dug into the complex latticework of restrictions.
The new Texas law, though, may be the rare exception. Undem conducted focus groups in Texas shortly after the restriction went into effect, and she found that many people knew about the law and were upset by it. “I heard things that I’ve never heard about after any other type of restriction,” she said. “They were realizing this actually has an impact on women.”
In other words, abortion can become a salient issue under the right circumstances. Amanda, who told me she wanted a middle ground, said the Texas law went too far for her. “That one is very difficult for me because I do consider myself pro-life, but six weeks is just so early,” she said. “I get where that would be an issue for a lot of people.”
That underscores the potential risk for the Supreme Court this term. The six-justice conservative majority may be open to overturning Roe — but that would likely spur a backlash. On the other hand, though, the court still has plenty of latitude. There’s a lot of room to further restrict abortion rights without putting a stake through the heart of one of the highest-profile Supreme Court decisions in history. And if that’s the path the court chooses, it might be surprisingly hard to get most Americans to care.
Mary Radcliffe contributed research.
CORRECTION (Dec. 1, 2021, 3:55 p.m.): An earlier version of this article stated that nearly 30 percent of participants in a Gallup poll thought abortion should be generally illegal in the second trimester. The poll actually found that nearly 30 percent of the respondents thought abortion should be legal in the second trimester.