April 8, 2016

On abortion, persistent divides between – and within – the two parties

Interactive: Public views of abortion, 1995-2016As Americans await a decision in the Supreme Court’s first abortion case in years, a slim majority (56%) now think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. About four-in-ten (41%) say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

The balance of opinion on this issue has ticked back toward support for legalization. Last fall, after the battle in Congress over funding for Planned Parenthood, the share of Americans in favor of abortion being legal in all or most cases took a slight dip (51% legal, 43% illegal).

The latest Pew Research Center political survey finds deep disagreement between – and within – the parties over many major issues, including abortion. In fact, the partisan divide on abortion is far more polarized than it was two decades ago.

For an interactive look at attitudes on abortion, click here

Wide ideological gaps in both parties in views of abortionBy a wide margin (59% to 38%), Republicans say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. In 1995, Republicans were evenly divided (49% legal vs. 48% illegal).

Views among Democrats have shown less change over the past two decades. Today, 70% of Democrats say abortion should be legal in at least most cases; in 1995, 64% favored legal abortion in all or most cases.

Within both parties, there are ideological differences over abortion. Liberal Democrats are 24 percentage points more likely than conservative and moderate Democrats to favor abortion being legal in at least most cases (84% vs. 60%).

Among Republicans, 54% of the party’s moderates and liberals say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with just 30% of conservative Republicans. Support for legal abortion among conservative Republicans has rebounded since last fall, when it fell to 16%, from 32% a year earlier.

Most Cruz voters oppose legal abortion; Trump, Kasich supporters more dividedWhile there are ideological differences within Democrats over abortion, there are only slight differences in the views of Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters who favor Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders for the party’s presidential nomination. Majorities of both Clinton and Sanders supporters (72% and 78%, respectively) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Among Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters, by contrast, those who support Ted Cruz are far more likely than those who support John Kasich or Donald Trump to say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

Three-quarters of Cruz supporters (73%) express opposition to abortion, while 23% say abortion should be legal in at least most cases. On the other hand, only about half of Trump and Kasich supporters (53% and 50%, respectively) say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

Among the public overall, there are no significant gender differences in views of whether abortion should be legal. Majorities of both men (57%) and women (55%) say it should be legal in at least most cases.

No gender gap in views on whether abortion should be legalFour-in-ten Republican men (40%) and 35% of Republican women say abortion should be legal in at least most cases. Among Democrats, men are slightly more likely to support abortion being legal in all or most cases. Three quarters of Democratic men (75%) say this, compared with 67% of Democratic women.

Support for legal abortion also varies by age, education and religious affiliation. Younger adults are slightly more likely to support legal abortion in all or most cases. Six-in-ten (59%) of those under 50, including 62% of those ages 18-29, say abortion should be legal in at least most cases. Just 36% of those under 30 say they are opposed.

Support for legal abortion in all or most cases also is stronger among those with higher levels of education. Those with postgraduate (71%) and bachelor’s (64%) degrees are more likely than those with less education to support legal abortion in at least most cases. Adults with no more than a high school education have mixed views on the issue: While half (50%) say abortion should be legal in at least most cases, 47% are say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

Among white evangelical Protestants, there continues to be staunch opposition to abortion in all or most cases. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while just 29% say it should be legal.

By contrast, the religious “nones” – those who are religiously unaffiliated – show broad support for legal abortion in all or most cases. Fully 78% are in favor, while just 21% are opposed. And by about two-to-one, more white mainline Protestants say abortion should be legal in all or most cases than say it should be illegal (66% vs. 30%). Catholics and black Protestants are more evenly divided in their views about abortion.

Topics: 2016 Election, Abortion, Catholics and Catholicism, Evangelical Protestants and Evangelicalism, Political Attitudes and Values, Religion and U.S. Politics, U.S. Political Parties

  1. is a research assistant focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.

4 Comments

  1. Anonymous5 months ago

    I found interesting the findings that both Catholics and Republicans are more supportive of abortion rights than one would think from listening to the leadership of both the church and the GOP.

  2. Vince Hall6 months ago

    I believe that Pew does a disservice by failing to isolate “illegal in all cases” in your written summaries of your abortion data.

    “Illegal in all cases” is the ONLY position of America’s pro-life organizations. It is the central public policy goal behind the entire pro-life movement. And yet Pew’s summaries continue to lump this position together with “illegal in most cases,” creating a false impression of legitimacy to one side of the public policy debate.

    In addition, the “all cases” data is a clear expression of a policy goal, while the “most cases” data is highly problematic, and in the absence of defining terms, is probably more of an emotional statement than a policy goal.

    For example, what “cases” are you referring to? All cases of pregnancy? All current abortion cases, and if so what understanding does the respondent have of current cases? All cases of unintended pregnancies?

    When you report respondents said abortion should be illegal in most cases, I’m left wondering: most cases of what?

    I cannot discern whether “cases” refers to categories of potential abortion patients (e.g. mother’s life in danger, mother’s health in danger, fetal anomaly, rape, incest, etc.) or actual counts of women having abortions. So does “illegal in most cases” refer to most cases of women currently having abortions, or most of the reasons women might give for wanting an abortion?

    Furthermore, the pro-choice side’s views are equally muddled by your approach. The Roe v. Wade decision imposes a series of restrictions on abortion tied to gestational stages, thus someone who supports current law will struggles to distinguish “abortion in most” or “all” cases, again depending on how you define “cases.” If cases refers to all cases of pregnancy, than you may be including a significant number of pro-choice respondents in the “illegal in most cases” category, if they support Roe for its restrictive effects.

    Given that the essence of this policy debate is whether abortion should be made illegal, and given the inherent difficulty in understanding the “most cases” categories, your summary of abortion data would be far more informative if you simply highlighted the fact that only 16% of Americans agree with the pro-life position. In other words, 84% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances.

  3. Yasmin Patel6 months ago

    I strongly support a woman’s right to choice in all issues of reproductive autonomy.

    1. Packard Day6 months ago

      I also strongly support the residual social benefits of a woman’s right to choice in all issues of reproductive autonomy [ref. Freakonomics (2005) S. Dubner & S. Levitt).