Politics & Policy

Do Americans Really Support Roe v. Wade?

Pro-choice and pro-life protesters outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, Mo., May 31, 2019. (Lawrence Bryant/Reuters)
A new Pew Research Center survey exemplifies the failures with much of public-opinion polling on abortion policy.

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new poll from the Pew Research Center purports to show that Americans tend to support the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, as well as that a majority agrees more with Democrats than with Republicans on abortion policy.

The results indicate that 70 percent of respondents do not want to see Roe overturned, while 28 percent say they do; this is little different from the results Pew found in its 2016 survey. The poll also found that 42 percent of respondents agree with the Democratic party’s abortion policies, compared to 32 who say they agree with those of the GOP. About a quarter of respondents said they don’t agree with either party’s policies.

As is often the case with public-opinion polls, especially those dealing with abortion, it’s a good idea to examine the survey questions a little more closely before entirely buying into the results.

Consider, for instance, the way the poll describes the ruling in Roe when asking respondents whether they’d like to see it overturned: “In 1973 the Roe versus Wade decision established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy.”

In reality, the decision in Roe permitted women to obtain an abortion well past the first three months of pregnancy, especially when given the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe’s companion case Doe v. Bolton, which required states to offer a “maternal health” exception to any abortion restriction. The decision in Doe defined the health exception expansively: “all factors — physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age — relevant to the wellbeing of the patient.” In other words, states must ensure that abortion be available to women essentially on demand.

Most Americans are unaware of these details of how Roe changed abortion policy in the U.S. A Pew poll in 2013, for instance, found that only 62 percent of Americans even knew Roe had to do with abortion; among respondents under 30, that percentage fell to 44 percent. How much less must they understand that Roe and Doe essentially legalized abortion on demand for the entire country? And how much more unaware must the respondents to Pew’s survey be, given that the question itself presents them with inaccurate information?

What’s more, when the new Pew poll asks respondents whether they agree more with the Democratic or the Republican party on abortion policy, it offers no specifics about what those policies are. It’s left entirely up to each respondent to define for herself, drawing on her potentially limited knowledge, what abortion policies each party favors, a factor that obviously complicates how we should understand the survey’s results.

Especially in light of habitually inaccurate media coverage of legislation that expands abortion rights — as well as the demonstrated tendency of mainstream outlets to focus intensely on pro-life heartbeat bills while offering relatively little information about bills such as those in Illinois and Vermont that define abortion on demand as a “fundamental right” — it makes sense to be skeptical of whether the respondents in this survey were operating from an accurate understanding of where each party stands on abortion.

To judge from the information available in popular media about how each party wishes to regulate abortion, it’s likely that most people know neither that the Democratic party’s platform demands that taxpayers fund abortion procedures nor that every Democratic politician currently running for president has failed to articulate a single restriction that they support on abortion.

Finally, it’s worth contrasting the framework used in the Pew survey with other, more useful public-opinion polls about abortion. When asking broadly about views on abortion, the Pew poll asks respondents to say whether they believe abortion ought to be “legal in all or most cases” or “illegal in all or most cases.” These are fairly broad categories with little room for specific line-drawing or consideration of actual regulations on abortion rights.

Compare this with the annual Marist–Knights of Columbus poll, which asks respondents about abortion within the trimester framework created by Roe. Though the Marist poll most often finds that Americans tend to describe themselves as “pro-choice” rather than “pro-life,” it has also found consistently that most Americans would limit abortion to the first three months of pregnancy, if they would permit it at all. Marist has found dramatically decreasing levels of public support for legal abortion as pregnancy progresses, and Gallup polls have documented a similar phenomenon.

The Marist poll also asks respondents about specific types of abortion regulations that pro-life lawmakers have proposed, such as the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection act, which would prohibit abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, as research suggests that unborn children begin to feel pain at that stage. Marist has also polled Americans on the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, bills prohibiting taxpayer funding of abortion and prohibiting abortion for the reason that an unborn child has been diagnosed with Down syndrome.

Because of the complexity of the ethical, legal, and political questions surrounding abortion, imprecise surveys like the one Pew released last week are of limited use in sorting through Americans’ views on the complicated details of abortion policy.

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