Nearly a half century after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the United States, new polls show a majority of Americans continue to support legal abortion but that there’s rising dissatisfaction with the status quo, on both sides.
The surveys, released by Gallup and the Kaiser Family Foundation on Wednesday, come in the wake of a flurry of Republican-led efforts in states to roll back abortion protections.
Gallup found that 58% of American adults are dissatisfied with current national abortion laws — a 7-percentage-point increase from last year, reflecting a rise in both those who said they wanted stricter laws and those who said they wanted laws loosened.
The Kaiser Family Foundation, meanwhile, found that 67% of respondents think that additional regulations on abortion providers and seekers were intended to make it more difficult for women to obtain abortions, as opposed to being designed to protect women’s health and safety. This included 62% of Republicans, 77% of Democrats and 61% of Independents.
Kaiser found about 59% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases. The same percentage of people consider themselves “pro-choice,” or in favor of abortion rights.
But Americans are split on the cases when abortion should be allowed. Eighty-two percent of people polled believe abortion should be legal if a patient’s life is in danger, Kaiser found. Far fewer but still a majority, 55%, said women should be allowed to have an abortion if they no longer wish to be pregnant.
It should be noted that poll results on abortion can vary widely depending on how questions are phrased.
Americans split over legality of abortion in some instances
Republican-leaning states, emboldened by the conservative-majority Supreme Court and efforts by the Trump administration to roll back abortion protections, passed eight laws in 2019 barring abortions past a certain point in pregnancy. Judges have so far blocked laws taken up in state-level challenges, though the issue is expected to be a key policy fight in 2020, as more state-level bills and federal restrictions are in the pipeline for consideration this year.
Respondents to Kaiser largely backed some recent measures to restrict abortion, though support fluctuated depending on the information they had about particular details. Most people said they support requiring doctors to show and describe ultrasound images to women seeking an abortion.
Kaiser found that voters are split when it comes to “heartbeat” bills, which ban women from having an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected and passed into law in six states last year. Initially, 49% supported the bills, 50% opposed.
But when told that fetal heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women know they’re pregnant, opposition to the laws rose to 60%.
Roe v. Wade, by comparison, allows abortions before the fetus is “viable outside the womb,” which typically occurs around 24 weeks into a pregnancy.
The results also show a “significant lack of knowledge” about abortion, according to Kaiser.
Sixty-nine percent of respondents incorrectly assumed that most abortions occur eight weeks or more into a pregnancy — per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost two-thirds of abortions occurred before eight weeks was up. Just 21% of adults had heard of mifepristone, a drug used in medication abortions.
Forty-two percent of Americans also believed, incorrectly, that Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in all cases.