The Supreme Court is set to rule on the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case soon, nearly a month after a leaked draft majority opinion suggests the court may uphold a Mississippi law that allows pregnancy after 15 weeks Bans abortion.
A decision to retain this restriction could undo women’s constitutional right to an abortion, in 1973 Roe v. Wade, and the decision was thrown back to the states.
Most Americans do not support a Rowe versus Wade reversal, and have held that opinion for some time.
According to a March 2022 Pew Research poll, approximately 61% of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, while 37% believe it should be illegal in all or most circumstances.
But national public opinion often does not influence Supreme Court decisions.
As a professor of political science who studies gender and public opinion, I believe general national opinion polling on abortion is important, but putting too much emphasis on it can be misleading. When it comes to how public opinion can shape debate, it is essential to focus on opinion in different states and among special interest groups.
public opinion on abortion
Polls since 1995 have consistently shown that most Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
But beyond these general tendencies, people’s specific backgrounds and characteristics guide their opinions on this controversial topic.
It may surprise some people to learn that research consistently shows that gender does not broadly influence public opinion on abortion. Women have been shown to be slightly more supportive of keeping abortion legal, but the difference between how women and men feel about it is small.
But other characteristics matter a lot. Currently, the biggest dividing line on abortion beliefs is partisanship.
According to a 2022 Pew Research poll, 80% of Democrats support legal abortion in all or most cases, while only 38% of Republicans do. The gap of opinion between Democrats and Republicans on this issue has widened over the past few decades.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Republicans and Democrats supported the right to have abortions at fairly equal rates. The research shows that the biased gap on abortion “went from 1 point in the period 1972 to 1986 to about 29 points in the period 2014 to 2017.”
Religion also plays an important role in abortion support. White evangelical Christians especially Roe v. Wade, but most others who identify as religious are bisexual, or remain supportive of the precedent.
Younger people and those with more years of education are more likely to say that abortion should be legal, while Latino people are more likely to oppose abortion.
As a result, abortion support varies dramatically across states, from 34% in Louisiana to 72% in Vermont, according to a 2018 survey of 50 states by the Public Religion Research Institute.
So, when Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, blocked a bill in February 2022 that would have protected the federal right to abortion, he was in line with the opinion of his constituents. In West Virginia, only 40% support legal abortion in all or most cases.
history of abortion
Even after the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973 in Roe v. Wade, abortion was not as partisan of an issue as it is today. It was not until the late 1970s and early 1980s that politicians tried to use abortion ideas as a way to gain votes.
But as religious conservative political movements grew in America, abortion became more political over the next few decades.
In the 1970s, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress were internally divided over abortion. For example, the Republican National Committee was co-chaired by Mary Dante Crisp, who supported abortion rights. By the 1980s, conservative activists removed Crisp from his position.
George H.W. Bush also ran as a moderate on abortion in the 1980 Republican presidential primary. But when Bush lost the primary bid and became Ronald Reagan’s teammate that year, his position changed. Bush opposed abortion while running for president in 1988.
This change speaks to the growing importance of the Christian Right in Republican electoral politics around this time.
President Joe Biden made a similar change in his support for abortion over time. Biden opposed using federal funds for abortion early in his congressional career, but has taken a more liberal position in recent years and now sees abortion as an essential element of health care.
Whose opinion matters?
Even though overall nationwide public support for abortion has been relatively high since the 1990s, this masks how a subset of people, such as those on the Christian Right who feel strongly about abortion, can reshape politics. .
State-level public opinion also matters. Attitudes to abortion vary greatly across states – and state-level policy has become polarized over time, leading to large policy differences between conservative and liberal states.
This matters because states have a huge influence in the politics of abortion. Since much of the federal debate revolves around Roe, the Senate has been an important gatekeeper for Supreme Court justices, who will determine whether they should overturn Roe.
This gap is a fundamental challenge for those who want a nationwide policy on abortion – whether or not they support someone’s ability to have an abortion in all or most cases.
The differing opinions on abortion are also a reminder of what kind of public opinion matters most in democratic politics. This is not the version of public opinion that emerges from nationally representative surveys of the American people. Instead, the most influential type of opinion is organized political activity that can pressure the government and shape electoral choices and legislative choices.