Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

A Slight but Steady Majority Favors Keeping Abortion Legal

Public opinion on the legality of abortion has remained relatively stable for well over a decade, with slight majorities of the public consistently saying they favor keeping abortion legal. Polling conducted between 1995 and 2008 reveals that support for keeping abortion legal in all or most cases has fluctuated between 49% and 61% over the 13-year time period. Fewer Americans have tended to express support for making abortion illegal in all or most cases, ranging from a low of 36% to a high of 48% over the same period of time.

At the same time, large majorities have expressed support for the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established constitutional protections for women seeking an abortion. In October 1989, for instance, more than six-in-ten Americans (61%) said they would oppose seeing the U.S. Supreme Court completely overturn the Roe decision, while only one-in-three (33%) favored overturning Roe. Sixteen years later, in November 2005, two-thirds (65%) continued to express support for keeping Roe as the law of the land, while 26% supported overturning the decision.

An August 2008 poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press confirms that American opinion on this issue remains very much in line with this historical pattern. A slim majority of the public (54%) says abortion should be legal in all (17%) or most (37%) cases, while 41% say abortion should be illegal in all (15%) or most (26%) cases.


Men and women are about equally likely to express support for abortion rights – 53% of men and 54% of women say it should be legal – but women are somewhat more likely than men to say abortion should be legal in all cases (20% of women vs. 14% of men). Majorities of most age groups say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, though support for legalized abortion is somewhat lower among those under age 30 (52%) compared with those ages 50-64 (58%). Only among those age 65 and older do fewer than half (46%) support legalized abortion.

Republicans are considerably more likely than Democrats and independents to oppose legalized abortion; 56% of Republicans say abortion should be illegal in most (37%) or all (19%) cases, compared with 39% of independents and just one-third of Democrats. More than six-in-ten Democrats (63%) express support for legalized abortion in most (41%) or all (22%) cases. While just 41% of all Republicans say abortion should be legal, two-thirds of self-identified moderate and liberal Republicans (67%) express this view.


Among major religious groups, white evangelical Protestants stand out in their solid opposition to legalized abortion – 62% say it should be illegal in most (43%) or all (19%) cases, while 33% say abortion should be legal in most (24%) or all (9%) cases. The religiously unaffiliated, by contrast, express high levels of support for legalized abortion, with nearly three-quarters (72%) saying abortion should be legal in most (45%) or all (27%) cases. More than two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (69%) also favor keeping abortion legal in most or all cases.

Black Protestants are split in their views on legalized abortion. Just under half (48%) say abortion should be legal, and about the same number (47%) say it should be illegal. And despite the Roman Catholic Church’s vocal opposition to abortion, opinion on the issue is also closely divided among Catholics, with about half (49%) saying abortion should be legal and a similar percentage (47%) saying it should not.

Opinions about the legality of abortion vary considerably by level of religious commitment, as measured by attendance at religious services. Nearly six-in-ten (57%) white non-Hispanic Catholics who attend church at least once a week, for instance, oppose legalized abortion, including 27% who say it should be illegal in all cases. By contrast, among white Catholics who attend church less frequently, a large majority (62%) say abortion should be legal and just 35% say it should not. Similar divisions are seen among the public overall as well as among evangelical and mainline Protestants; those who attend religious services at least once a week are significantly more opposed to abortion than those who attend worship services less often.


Public Largely Favors Restrictions on Abortion

While the public generally tends to support legalized abortion, it is also clear that most Americans harbor concerns about the morality of abortion and favor certain restrictions on its use. Pew Research Center polling from 2006, for instance, finds that most Americans (73%) believe that abortion is morally wrong in nearly all (24%) or some (49%) circumstances. Only one-in-four (24%) say aboriton is not a moral issue. And a 2005 Pew Research Center poll finds that nearly six-in-ten Americans (59%) think it would be a good thing to reduce the number of abortions performed in the United States, compared with only 33% who do not feel this way.

Perhaps reflecting these concerns, attitudes about abortion are highly dependent on the pregnant woman’s circumstances. For example, a 2005 Pew Research Center analysis shows that the public supports abortion when the physical or psychological health of the mother may be in danger, or when the pregnancy results from rape or incest. But most Americans disapprove of abortion when the circumstances relate to economics, life choices or a personal preference not to have a child.


An August 2007 Pew Research Center survey finds that an overwhelming number of Americans (75%) favor keeping partial-birth abortion, also known as dilation and extraction, illegal. Even among those who say abortion should be legal in all cases, almost half (49%) believe that partial-birth abortion procedures should be illegal. Overall, only 17% of Americans say that partial-birth abortion should be legal.

Other Pew Research Center polling finds that majorities of the public also consistently express support for requiring that women under age 18 get the consent of at least one parent before having an abortion; 73% expressed this view in 2005, as did 69% in 1999 and 73% in 1992. Nearly nine-in-ten evangelicals express support for parental consent laws as do majorities of white Catholics, white mainline Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated.


This report was compiled by Gregory Smith and Allison Pond, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

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