Abortion Views Hold Steady Over Past Year

by Lydia Saad

Public makes sharp distinctions about abortion circumstances

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

Gallup's annual reading of Americans' basic attitudes on abortion, conducted May 5-7, 2003, finds little change compared with attitudes a year ago. The public appears to be ambivalent about abortion, calling it morally wrong, but widely accepting its use in certain situations. Americans remain closely divided over the leading abortion debate position labels: 48% consider themselves "pro-choice" and 45% call themselves "pro-life."

Most Americans hold one of two middle-of-the road positions on abortion. A large plurality (42%) holds the view that abortion should be legal, but only in a few circumstances. Another 15% of Americans believe abortion should be legal under most, but not all, circumstances. Then, at the extremes, Gallup finds about a quarter, 23%, believing abortion should be legal under all circumstances. Nearly as many, 19%, take the opposite view, saying it should be illegal in all circumstances.

Legal
under any circumstances

Legal
under most circumstances

Legal only
in a few circumstances

Illegal
in all circumstances


No
opinion

2003 May 5-7

23%

15

42

19

1

For most of the nearly 30 years Gallup has been tracking abortion attitudes, the majority has preferred to see abortion legal, but only under certain circumstances. The percentage holding one or the other of the extreme positions has shifted somewhat. The percentage saying abortion should be legal in all circumstances gradually rose from 21% in 1975 to 34% in 1992, and then slipped back to the 25% range in 1996, at about which it has stayed ever since. The percentage saying abortion should never be legal has varied from a low of 12% in 1995 to a high of 22% in May 2002.

A new question this year finds Americans are widely supportive of keeping abortion legal throughout pregnancy in cases when the woman's life is endangered, and when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest. Support for abortion when the baby would be born with a life-threatening condition or mental disability varies depending on whether the abortion would take place in the first or third trimester.

Americans Make Clear Allowance for "Life of the Mother" and "Rape and Incest"

In a late May survey, Gallup probed Americans' beliefs about five specific situations under which an abortion might be performed -- distinguishing attitudes about abortions conducted in the first trimester from those conducted in the third trimester.

In the first trimester, a clear majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal when it is performed to save the life of the woman (82%), when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest (72%), and when the child would be born with a life-threatening illness (60%). The public is more evenly torn over the legality of abortion in the first three months in cases in which it is shown the child would be born mentally disabled (50% are in favor and 46% are opposed). Even in this early stage, a majority of Americans (56%) oppose abortion in cases when the woman does not want the child for any reason.

Attitudes change somewhat when the focus turns to the third trimester. Majorities (albeit smaller ones) continue to believe abortion should be allowed when the woman's life is endangered (75%), and when the pregnancy results from rape or incest (59%). An even larger majority than in the first trimester opposes third trimester abortions in cases in which the woman does not want the child (74%).

However, unlike in the first trimester, the public is split over whether third-trimester abortions should be legal when the child would be born with a life-threatening illness (48% vs. 47%). And a clear majority opposes third trimester abortion for cases when the child would be born mentally disabled (56%).

Circumstances Under Which Abortion Should Be Legal in First, Third Trimesters

May 19-21, 2003

 

First
Trimester

Third
Trimester

Difference

%

%

+/-

When the woman's life is endangered

82

75

-7

When the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest

72

59

-13

When the child would be born with a life-threatening illness

60

48

-12

When the child would be born mentally disabled

50

38

-12

When the woman does not want the child for any reason

41

24

-17

"Partial-Birth Abortion" Ban Looms Again

Abortion attitudes are always politically relevant, but with a controversial abortion bill poised to pass Congress in the next week or so, they could become even more so. After clearing the U.S. Senate earlier this year, the House of Representatives is close to voting on a bill that would ban the late-term abortion procedure commonly known as partial-birth abortion. Although President Bush has said he will sign the bill if it passes, the legislation will face immediate legal challenges, and it is widely expected that the Supreme Court will ultimately decided the legality of the measure.

Past Gallup polling has shown widespread public support for a ban on the "partial-birth abortion" procedure. According to the latest measure from January 2003, 70% of U.S. adults are in favor of the ban and only 25% are opposed. But as the new Gallup abortion data demonstrate, Americans are not as solidly opposed to late-term abortions -- particularly when the physical wellbeing of the mother is at stake. This is potentially important to the impending political debate, because critics of the pending partial-birth legislation charge that in making no exceptions to the ban, the bill does not give adequate protection to the potential welfare of women.

Majority Finds Abortion "Morally Wrong"

Apart from the legality of abortion, Gallup finds that a majority of Americans personally believe that abortion is morally wrong. Just over one-third considers it morally acceptable. These views are very similar to those from a year ago, but reflect a slight conservative shift compared with May 2001 when 45% of the public felt abortion was morally wrong.

Next, I'm going to read you a list of issues. Regardless of whether or not you think it should be legal, for each one, please tell me whether you personally believe that in general it is morally acceptable or morally wrong. How about … abortion

 

Morally
acceptable

Morally
wrong

DEPENDS (vol.)

%

%

%

2003 May 5-7

37

53

9

2002 May 6-9

38

53

8

2001 May 10-14

42

45

11



As Gallup has noted many times before, the strongest differences in perceptions of the morality of abortion are seen along religious lines. In the latest survey, the perception that abortion is morally wrong ranges from 78% among those who attend religious services weekly, to 58% among those who attend often, but not weekly, to only 28% among those who seldom or never attend. Catholics and Protestants share similar views on this measure, with a majority of both groups calling abortion morally wrong.

Beyond the religious factor, Gallup finds women slightly more likely to believe abortion is morally wrong than men are (56% of women call it morally wrong vs. 49% of men). Young adults are less likely to consider abortion morally wrong than those over age 30 are. Residents of the East and West are less likely to believe abortion is morally wrong than residents in the Midwest and South are.

Although Democrats tend to be pro-choice, and Republicans tend to be pro-life, the two partisan groups are not all that far apart in their perceptions of the morality of abortion. A solid majority of Republicans consider abortion morally wrong, while Democrats are divided on the question.

Morality of Abortion by Major Demographic Groups

 

Morally
acceptable

Morally
wrong

%

%

National adults

37

53

Men

40

49

Women

34

56

18 to 29

43

48

30 to 49

39

54

50 to 64

38

51

65 and older

25

58

East

46

44

Midwest

34

58

South

24

64

West

51

39

Republican

27

64

Independent

42

48

Democrat

43

45

Protestants

32

56

Catholics

33

59

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,005 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 5-7,2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,014 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 19-21, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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

 

Legal
under any circumstances

Legal only
under certain circumstances

Illegal in all circumstances

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 May 5-7

23

57

19

1

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 (Q.15-16)

 

Legal
under any circumstances

Legal
under most circumstances

Legal only
in a few circumstances

Illegal
in all circumstances

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2003 May 5-7

23

15

42

19

1

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



With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?

 

Pro-choice

Pro-life

MIXED/
NEITHER
(vol.)

DON'T KNOW WHAT TERMS MEAN (vol.)

No opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2003 May 5-7

48

45

2

4

1

2002 May 6-9

47

46

3

3

1

2001 Aug 10-12

46

46

3

3

2

2001 May 10-14

48

42

4

4

2

2001 Mar 26-28

47

41

4

6

2

2000 Mar 30-Apr 2

48

43

2

4

3

1999 Apr 30-May 2

48

42

3

4

3

1998 Jan 16-18

48

45

3

2

2

1997 Nov 6-9

51

40

3

3

3

1997 Aug 12-13

47

44

3

3

3

1996 Jul 25-28

53

36

5

3

3

1995 Sep 22-24

56

33

5

3

3

NOTE: Trends taken only from polls where previous two questions (abortion legal under which circumstances) also asked.



Next, I'm going to read you a list of issues. Regardless of whether or not you think it should be legal, for each one, please tell me whether you personally believe that in general it is morally acceptable or morally wrong. How about … [RANDOM ORDER]?

A. Abortion

 

Morally
acceptable

Morally
wrong

DEPENDS
ON SIT-
UATION (vol.)

NOT A MORAL ISSUE
(vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2003 May 5-7

37

53

9

*

1

2002 May 6-9

38

53

8

*

1

2001 May 10-14

42

45

11

1

1



SUMMARY TABLE: MORAL ACCEPTABILITY OF ISSUES

 

2003 May 5-7
(sorted by "morally acceptable")

Morally
acceptable

Morally
wrong

%

%

Divorce

66

27

The death penalty

64

31

Medical testing on animals

63

33

Gambling

63

34

Buying and wearing clothing made of animal fur

60

36

Sex between an unmarried man and woman

58

41

Medical research using stem cells obtained from human embryos

54

38

Having a baby outside of marriage

51

46

Doctor assisted suicide

45

49

Homosexual behavior

44

52

Abortion

37

53

Cloning animals

29

68

Suicide

14

81

Cloning humans

8

90

Polygamy, when one husband has more than one wife at the same time

7

92

Married men and women having an affair

6

93



Now I am going to read some specific situations under which an abortion might be considered in the FIRST THREE MONTHS of pregnancy. Thinking specifically about the FIRST trimester, please say whether you think abortion should be legal in that situation, or illegal. How about ... [RANDOM ORDER]?

BASED ON –505—NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A

 

2003 May 19-21
(sorted by "legal")


Legal


Illegal

No opinion

%

%

When the woman's life is endangered

82

15

3

When the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest

72

24

4

When the child would be born with a life-threatening illness

60

35

5

When the child would be born mentally disabled

50

46

4

When the woman does not want the child for any reason

41

56

3



Now I am going to read some specific situations under which an abortion might be considered in the LAST THREE MONTHS of pregnancy. Thinking specifically about the THIRD trimester, please say whether you think abortion should be legal in that situation, or illegal. How about ... [RANDOM ORDER]?

BASED ON –509—NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B

 

2003 May 19-21
(sorted by "legal")


Legal


Illegal

No opinion

%

%

When the woman's life is endangered

75

22

3

When the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest

59

39

2

When the child would be born with a life-threatening illness

48

47

5

When the child would be born mentally disabled

38

56

6

When the woman does not want the child for any reason

24

74

2



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