The Corner

Roe v. Wade Is Popular, with Asterisks

Via Reason, I see that Pew Research finds that 69 percent of the public do not want to see the Supreme Court “completely overturn” Roe v. Wade. Pro-lifers are rightly criticizing the wording of Pew’s question, which says that Roe “established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy.” That’s an incomplete description of Roe, which together with its companion case Doe v. Bolton protects abortion from being prohibited at any stage of pregnancy.

The degree to which this wording affects people’s answers is unclear. In 2005, Gallup stopped including the “first three months” language in its questions about Roe. It says that it conducted an experiment that showed that the change made no significant difference. But its polling found a large and sustained decline in support for Roe around this time, although it is still above 50 percent. In 2013, Gallup found 53 percent of Americans do not want the Court to overturn Roe.

Gallup might register less support for Roe than Pew does for another reason: Pew asks people if they want to see the decision “completely” overturned, while Gallup just asks them if they want it overturned.

It’s also worth noting that even when pollsters don’t feed respondents misinformation about Roe, a lot of people have a fuzzy understanding of it. A 2013 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll on Roe found “don’t know enough about this to have an opinion” to be the choice of a 41 percent plurality. The same year Pew asked whether Roe concerned abortion, school desegregation, or other issues. Only 62 percent correctly chose abortion.

Polling on other aspects of the abortion debate gives a different impression of public opinion than the polling on Roe. Gallup consistently finds that more people think abortion should be legal in no circumstances or “only in a few” circumstances than think it should be legal under “any” or “most” circumstances: Its most recent poll, in May, found a 56–41 percent majority for the two relatively pro-life answers. The NBC–Wall Street Journal poll found in 2013 that 52 percent of Americans think abortion should either be always illegal or be legal only in cases of rape and incest and to save the mother’s life. A December 2015 AP/GfK poll found that 51 percent of Americans want stricter abortion laws, 14 percent want less-strict laws, and 25 percent want them to stay as they are. And polls often find large majorities behind restrictions on late-term abortion, requirements for parental consent, and prohibitions on taxpayer funding for abortion.

None of this means that we should treat the polling on Roe as meaningless. It would surely be better for the pro-life cause if the polls didn’t regularly find majority support for the decision. And there is other polling in which Americans side with pro-choicers: If you ask Americans whether the decision should be between a woman and her doctor, for example, majorities say yes. Large majorities favor keeping abortion legal in cases of rape.

We should draw a few conclusions from all of these findings: There is no pro-choice majority, there is no pro-life majority, and no one poll question or number captures the complexity of public opinion on abortion.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.