Roe v. Wade Has Positive Public Image

by Lydia Saad

Americans want abortion legal in some, but not all, circumstances

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll finds that more Americans have a positive than negative reaction when they think of the Roe v. Wade landmark abortion decision that the Supreme Court handed down 30 years ago this week. A 53% majority of Americans consider Roe v. Wade to have been a "good thing" for the country. Only 30% consider it a "bad thing," while 17% are uncertain.

On the verge of this major anniversary, the Jan. 10-12 Gallup Poll finds Americans' general attitudes about abortion to be highly similar to what they have been for the last several years. Relatively small minorities of Americans take either of the hard-core positions on the issue, saying either that abortion should be legal in all circumstances or that it should be legal in no circumstances. The majority are equivocal, saying it should be legal, but on a more or less limited basis.

Detailed Abortion Views

Roughly one in four Americans take a firm liberal position on abortion, saying it should be legal "under any circumstances," and another 14% lean in this direction, saying abortion should be legal in "most circumstances." Fewer than one in five Americans take a firm conservative position, saying abortion should be "illegal in all circumstances," but another 42% lean in this direction, saying it should be legal "only in a few circumstances."

Opinions on Abortion Legality
Jan. 10-12, 2003

If the percentages for the two more conservative and the two more liberal positions are combined, Americans appear to lean in a conservative direction on abortion by a 60% to 38% margin. However, this combination of the categories should not be equated with "pro-life" and "pro-choice" positions. A Gallup survey from May 2002 addressed this issue directly, showing the public to be evenly divided in its attachment to those labels: 47% of Americans considered themselves pro-choice, while 46% were self-defined as pro-life.

Little Change in Recent Years

Gallup's long-term trend on abortion is based on a three-way division of opinion: 1) legal under any circumstances, 2) legal only under certain circumstances, and 3) illegal in all circumstances. On this basis, the public's abortion attitudes have been stable at the current level since about 1996. Americans were somewhat more pro-choice in their orientation between 1990 and 1995, when an average of one-third of Americans believed abortion should be legal under any circumstances. But current opinion on this issue is very similar to where it stood prior to 1990.

Abortion Attitudes 1975-2003

Beyond this general attitudinal framework, the poll finds Americans widely supportive of keeping abortion legal in a variety of situations involving the physical and mental wellbeing of the mother as well as if the baby were to be born physically or mentally impaired. Sizable majorities of Americans believe abortion should be legal when the woman's life is endangered, when her physical or mental health is endangered, and when there is evidence that the baby may be born physically or mentally impaired. Three-quarters support abortion rights in cases in which the pregnancy is caused by rape or incest. Perhaps as a result of these attitudes, most Americans (59%) say they oppose a constitutional amendment that would ban abortion in all circumstances except when necessary to save the life of the mother.

Circumstances in Which Americans Believe
Abortion Should Be Legal
Jan. 10-12, 2003

Public Would Curb Access to Abortion in Many Areas

The same Gallup Poll shows that while Americans support abortion rights in matters of serious health issues, they oppose it in cases where the woman or family cannot afford to raise the child (by a 61% to 35% margin).

Moreover, Americans make a clear distinction between access to abortion in the first trimester versus later in pregnancy. Asked to think about the legality of abortion on a trimester basis, two-thirds favor it in the first trimester, but an equal number oppose it in the second trimester, and that opposition rises to 84% for abortion in the third trimester. The majority (70%) also believes it should be illegal to perform the specific abortion procedure conducted in the last 6 months of pregnancy known as "partial birth abortion," except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother.

Abortion Attitudes: By Trimester
Jan. 10-12, 2003

Americans also support the major procedural limitations on abortion that have been at the center of legislative and legal debate between pro-choice and pro-life forces in recent years:

  • Nearly 9 in 10 Americans (88%) favor a law requiring doctors to inform patients about alternatives to abortion before performing the procedure.
  • Nearly 8 in 10 (78%) favor a law requiring women seeking abortions to wait 24 hours before having the procedure done.
  • About three-quarters (73%) favor a law requiring women under 18 to get parental consent for any abortion.
  • Seventy-two percent favor a law requiring that the husband of a married woman be notified if she decides to have an abortion.

Of these, the Supreme Court (in its 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey) has upheld the legality of a 24-hour waiting period, mandatory abortion counseling (informed consent), and parental consent for minors. But in that same case, the court struck down the provision of the Pennsylvania law requiring prior spousal consent before a married woman could obtain an abortion.

Demographic Differences

The following table details abortion views according to major subgroups of the population. This latest survey confirms what Gallup has shown for many years:

  • Differences in views on abortion by gender are minor.
  • Older Americans and those living in the South and Midwest regions of the country tend to be the most conservative on abortion.
  • Support for abortion increases with formal education, and is highest among those with postgraduate education.

The poll also finds large differences in views between Republicans and Democrats on this issue, with Republicans much more likely than Democrats to favor making abortion illegal in all or most circumstances. These differences by partisan orientation have been evident in Gallup abortion surveys for at least the last 2 decades.

Abortion Views by Subgroup -- January 2003

 

Legal in all/
Legal in most cases

Illegal in all/
Legal in only a few cases

%

%

National adults

38

60

Men

39

58

Women

37

60

18-29

37

63

30-49

42

55

50-64

45

54

65+

22

72

East

42

56

Midwest

35

63

South

35

63

West

41

55

Postgraduate education

58

40

College graduate only

54

43

Some college

41

58

High school grad or less

24

73

Republican

27

70

Independent

41

57

Democrat

46

50

Roe v. Wade a good thing

58

41

Roe v. Wade a bad thing

10

88

Comparing Americans' answers about the ideal legality of abortion with their overall impressions of Roe v. Wade provides some insights into the nature of public support for the 1973 decision. Those who consider Roe v. Wade to have been bad for the country are almost uniform in their belief that abortion should be limited to only a few or no circumstances (88% hold this combination of views). Those who consider the decision to have been good for the country are more likely to believe abortion should be widely available (58%), but a substantial minority of this pro-Roe group (41%) favors a more restrictive policy.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,002 adults, 18 years and older, conducted Jan. 10-12, 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?

 

Legal
under any circum-
stances

Legal only
under certain circum-
stances


Illegal in all circum-
stances


No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

24

57

18

1

2002 May 6-9

25

51

22

2

2002 Mar 22-24

27

53

19

1

2002 Feb 8-10

26

54

18

2

2001 Aug 10-12

26

56

17

1

2001 May 10-14

26

58

15

1

2001 Mar 26-28

26

51

18

5

2000 Mar 30-Apr 2

28

51

19

2

2000 Jan 13-16

26

56

15

3

1999 Apr 30-May 2

27

55

16

2

1998 Jan 16-18

23

59

17

1

1997 Nov 6-9

26

55

17

2

1997 Aug 12-13

22

61

15

2

1996 Sep 20-22

24

52

17

7

1996 Jul 25-28

25

58

15

2

1995 Sep 22-24

31

54

12

3

1995 Feb 24-26

33

50

15

2

1994 Sep 6-7

33

52

13

2

1994 Mar 28-30

31

51

15

3

1993 Mar 12-14

32

51

13

4

1992 Jul 23-24 ^

34

48

15

3

1992 Jun 29

34

48

13

5

1992 Jan 16-19

31

53

14

2

1991 Sep 5-8

33

49

14

4

1991 May 30-Jun 2

32

50

17

1

1990 Apr 5-20

31

53

12

4

1989 Jul 6-9

29

51

17

3

1989 Jul 6-7 ^

29

51

17

3

1989 Apr 12-13 ^

27

50

18

5

1988 Sep 25-Oct 1

24

57

17

2

1985 Jan 3-4 ^

21

55

21

3

1983 Jun 24-27

23

58

16

3

1981 May 8-11

23

52

21

4

1980 Jul 11-14

25

53

18

4

1979 Feb 23-26

22

54

19

5

1977 Dec 9-12

22

55

19

4

1975 Apr 4-7

21

54

22

3

^ Gallup/Newsweek



(If certain circumstances) Do you think abortion should be legal in most circumstances or only in a few circumstances?

COMBINED RESPONSES

 

Legal
under any circum-
stances

Legal
in most circum-
stances

Legal only
in a few circum-
stances

Illegal
in all circum-
stances


No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

24

14

42

18

2

2002 May 6-9

25

12

39

22

2

2002 Mar 22-24

27

12

40

19

2

2001 Aug 10-12

26

12

43

17

2

2001 May 10-14

26

15

41

15

3

2001 Mar 26-28

26

13

38

18

5

2000 Mar 30-Apr 2

28

11

38

19

4

2000 Jan 13-16

26

17

39

15

3

1999 Apr 30-May 2

27

12

42

16

3

1998 Jan 16-18

23

16

42

17

2

1997 Nov 6-9

26

15

40

17

2

1997 Aug 12-13

22

12

48

15

3

1996 Jul 25-28

25

13

43

15

4

1995 Sep 22-24

31

14

39

12

4

1995 Feb 24-26

32

9

41

15

3

1994 Sep 6-7

33

13

38

13

3



Now I am going to read some specific situations under which an abortion might be considered. For each one, please say whether you think abortion should be legal in that situation, or illegal. How about -- [RANDOM ORDER]

A. When the woman's life is endangered

 

Should be legal

Should be illegal

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

85

11

2

2

2000 Mar30-Apr 2

84

12

2

2

1996 Jul 25-26

88

7

3

2

(vol.) Volunteered response



B. When the woman's physical health is endangered

 

Should be legal

Should be illegal

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

77

17

4

2

2000 Mar30-Apr 2

81

15

2

2

1996 Jul 25-26

82

11

5

2

(vol.) Volunteered response



C. When the woman's mental health is endangered

 

Should be legal

Should be illegal

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

63

32

3

2

2000 Mar30-Apr 2

64

29

3

4

1996 Jul 25-26

66

27

5

2

(vol.) Volunteered response



D. When there is evidence that the baby may be physically impaired

 

Should be legal

Should be illegal

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

56

37

4

3

2000 Mar30-Apr 2

53

39

5

3

1996 Jul 25-26

53

37

7

3

(vol.) Volunteered response



E. When there is evidence that the baby may be mentally impaired

 

Should be legal

Should be illegal

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

55

39

3

3

2000 Mar30-Apr 2

53

40

4

3

1996 Jul 25-26

54

36

7

3

(vol.) Volunteered response



F. When the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest

 

Should be legal

Should be illegal

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

76

19

2

3

2000 Mar30-Apr 2

78

19

1

2

1996 Jul 25-26

77

18

3

2

(vol.) Volunteered response



G. When the woman or family cannot afford to raise the child

 

Should be legal

Should be illegal

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

35

61

2

2

2000 Mar30-Apr 2

34

62

2

2

1996 Jul 25-26

32

62

3

3

(vol.) Volunteered response



SUMMARY TABLE: SUPPORT FOR ABORTION IN DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES

 

2003 Jan 10-12
(sorted by "should be legal")

Should be legal

Should be illegal

%

%

When the woman's life
is endangered

85

11

When the woman's physical health
is endangered

77

17

When the pregnancy was caused
by rape or incest

76

19

When the woman's mental health
is endangered

63

32

When there is evidence that the baby
may be physically impaired

56

37

When there is evidence that the baby
may be mentally impaired

55

39

When the woman or family cannot
afford to raise the child

35

61



Thinking more generally, do you think abortion should generally be legal or generally illegal during each of the following stages of pregnancy. How about --[RANDOM ORDER]?

A. In the first three months of pregnancy

 

Should be legal

Should be illegal

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

66

29

3

2

2000 Mar30-Apr 2

65

31

2

2

1996 Jul 25-26

64

30

4

2



B. In the second three months of pregnancy

 

Should be legal

Should be illegal

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

25

68

4

3

2000 Mar30-Apr 2

24

69

4

3

1996 Jul 25-26

26

65

7

2



C. In the last three months of pregnancy

 

Should be legal

Should be illegal

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

10

84

4

2

2000 Mar30-Apr 2

8

86

3

3

1996 Jul 25-26

13

82

3

2

(vol.) Volunteered response



Next, do you favor or oppose each of the following proposals. How about -- [READ AND ROTATE A-D FIRST, THEN ROTATE E AND F]

A. A law requiring women seeking abortions to wait 24 hours before having the procedure done

 

Favor

Oppose

No opinion

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

78

19

3

1996 Jul 25-28

74

22

4

1992 Jan 16-19

73

23

4



B. A law requiring doctors to inform patients about alternatives to abortion before performing the procedure

 

Favor

Oppose

No opinion

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

88

11

1

1996 Jul 25-28

86

11

3

1992 Jan 16-19

86

12

2



C. A law requiring women under 18 to get parental consent for any abortion

 

Favor

Oppose

No opinion

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

73

24

3

1996 Jul 25-28

74

23

3

1992 Jan 16-19

70

23

7



D. A law requiring that the husband of a married woman be notified if she decides to have an abortion

 

Favor

Oppose

No opinion

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

72

26

2

1996 Jul 25-28

70

26

4

1992 Jan 16-19

73

25

2



E. A law which would make it illegal to perform a specific abortion procedure conducted in the last six months of pregnancy known as a "partial birth abortion," except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother

 

Favor

Oppose

No opinion

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

70

25

5

2000 Oct 25-28 ^

63

35

2

2000 Mar 30-Apr 2 †

66

29

5

2000 Jan 13-16 ‡

64

31

5

1999 Apr 30-May 2

61

34

5

1998 Jan 16-18 ‡

61

36

3

1997 Mar ‡

55

40

5

1996 Apr ‡

57

39

4

^

WORDING: I am going to read several propositions that would prohibit and make illegal certain activities. Would you vote ... for or against a law which would make it illegal to perform a specific abortion procedure conducted in the last six months of pregnancy known as a 'partial birth abortion,' except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother?

WORDING: If you could vote on this issue directly, would you vote for or against the following: a law which would make it illegal to perform a specific abortion procedure conducted in the last six months of pregnancy known as a "partial birth abortion," except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother?

WORDING: Next, do you favor or oppose the following proposal: A law which would make it illegal to perform a specific abortion procedure conducted in the last six months of pregnancy known as a "partial birth abortion," except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother?



F. A constitutional amendment to ban abortion in all circumstances, except when necessary to save the life of the mother

 

Favor

Oppose

No opinion

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

38

59

3

1996 Jul 25-28

38

59

3

1992 Jan 16-19

42

56

2

1984

50

46

4



SUMMARY TABLE: SUPPORT FOR ABORTION IN DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES

2003 Jan 10-12
(sorted by "favor")


Favor


Oppose

%

%

A law requiring doctors to inform patients about alternatives to abortion before performing the procedure

88

11

A law requiring women seeking abortions to wait 24 hours before having the procedure done

78

19

A law requiring women under 18 to get parental consent for any abortion

73

24

A law requiring that the husband of a married woman be notified if she decides to have an abortion

72

26

A law which would make it illegal to perform a specific abortion procedure conducted in the last six months of pregnancy known as a "partial birth abortion," except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother

70

25

A constitutional amendment to ban abortion in all circumstances, except when necessary to save the life of the mother

38

59

As you may know, in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a landmark decision on abortion known as Roe versus Wade. Do you think that decision was a – [ROTATED: good thing (or a) bad thing] – for the country?

 

Good thing for country

Bad thing for country

No opinion

%

%

%

2003 Jan 10-12

53

30

17



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