July 7, 2017

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

Abortion has long been a contentious issue in American politics and one that splits deeply along partisan, ideological and religious lines. Today, a 57% majority of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 40% think it should be illegal in all or most cases. These views are little changed from a year ago, though the share saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases is now higher than it was in the fall of 2015, when Congress battled over funding for Planned Parenthood (51% legal, 43% illegal).

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

Explore an interactive look at attitudes on abortion.

By a wide margin (65% to 34%), 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, 75% 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 30 percentage points more likely than conservative and moderate Democrats to favor legal abortion (91% vs. 61%).

Among Republicans, 54% of the party’s moderates and liberals say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with just 27% of conservative Republicans.

Support for abortion varies by age, education and religious affiliation. Younger adults are slightly more likely to support legal abortion in all or most cases. About six-in-ten (61%) of those younger than 50, including 65% of those ages 18 to 29, say abortion should be legal in at least most cases. Just 33% of those under 30 say they are opposed.

Support for legal abortion also is more common among those with higher levels of education. Those with postgraduate (75%) and bachelor’s (65%) 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 (49%) say abortion should be legal in at least most cases, 48% 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. Seven-in-ten (70%) 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. Eight-in-ten are in favor, while just 17% are opposed. And by more than two-to-one, more white mainline Protestants say abortion should be legal in all or most cases than say it should be illegal (67% vs. 30%).

Among the public overall, there are no significant gender differences in views of whether abortion should be legal. Majorities of both men (55%) and women (59%) say it should be legal in at least most cases. And there are only modest racial and ethnic differences, with whites (58%) and blacks (62%) somewhat more likely than Hispanics (50%) to say abortion to should be legal in all or most cases.

Note: This is an update of a post originally published April 8, 2016. See full topline results and methodology (PDF). 

Topics: U.S. Political Parties, Political Attitudes and Values, Religion and U.S. Politics, Abortion

  1. Photo of Hannah Fingerhut

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


  1. Jill Mulford1 month ago

    Interesting that the Pro-Choice view becomes stronger and stronger with more education. I think that says a lot. When in doubt, seriously consider the opinions of those with the most intelligence and education.

  2. Edward Silha1 month ago

    Philosophers throughout the ages have promoted the following concept:
    “The freedom of each being should be restricted only in a manner that it prevents his actions from infringing on the freedom of others”.
    The decision on whether to continue a pregnancy or terminate it must be solely that of the pregnant worman. The consequences of the risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth, of the economic effects, of familial relations, etc. can only be judged (accepted or rejected) by the woman as she is the primary receipent of those consequences.
    For anyone to infringe on her freedom of action is to violate what philosophers have long held to be the primary focus of the place individuals occupy in a society.

  3. Anonymous2 months ago

    The “most cases” thing is kind of vague. Some polls will ask about specific situations or time in pregnancy, but this just says “most” without much else. So it’s kind of hard to know what that segment means. So around 57% of people in this, essentially, have some essentially unclear middle view that’s between Pro-Choice and Pro-Life activists views. (Because we don’t even know what “most” means to them.) You could therefore use it to say people are actually Pro-Life, if you think Pro-Choicers want no restrictions at all, or that they’re even more overwhelmingly Pro-Choice if you feel even some of the staunchest Pro-Choicers believe in some restrictions after viability so would answer “most.”

    So it’s kind of vague.

  4. Anonymous2 months ago

    Unfortunate that they can’t poll the number of unborn.

  5. Packard Day2 months ago

    Not nearly enough pro-choice advocaes ever try to make the point made by Steve Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner in their book, “Freakonomics (2005).” Admittedly, it is a bit of a eugenicky play, but who would not wish to spare society from the creation of a future criminal/perpetual ward of the state class of people?

    1. Anonymous1 month ago

      “who would not wish to spare society from the creation of a future criminal/perpetual ward of the state”

      Really? You don’t know who? The answer is: people that value life and individual freedom.

      If you’d like to prevent the creation of “that class” of people, would you also be in favor of eliminating them – even though they may have already been born? Why should they age of the fetus, baby, toddler, tween, youth, etc. matter. If they should be killed off, what difference should age make?

  6. Anonymous1 year 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.

  7. Vince Hall1 year 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.

  8. Yasmin Patel1 year ago

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

    1. Packard Day1 year 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).

    2. Anonymous1 month ago

      Strange coming from anyone who made it out alive.