At a time when antiabortion measures are sweeping the United States, one of the largest-ever surveys on abortion attitudes finds support for legal abortion has held steady. No more than a quarter of residents in any state supports a total ban despite the increasing political divide on the issue.
The Public Religion Research Institute survey released Tuesday involves an extraordinarily large sample of 54,357 interviews throughout 2018, allowing it to produce nuanced results for individual states and for very small demographic groups.
It found that Americans remain generally supportive of abortion rights, with a majority — 54 percent — saying it should be legal in all or most cases and 40 percent saying it should be illegal. These numbers are nearly the same as a similar survey in 2014 when 55 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal.
States with the largest proportion of residents who say abortion should be illegal in all cases are Louisiana at 23 percent; Mississippi at 22 percent; and Arkansas, Nebraska, Tennessee at 21 percent. Many of these same states have moved to restrict abortion in recent months through legislation, administrative measures, and in courts.
Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, for example, are among the six states that passed “heartbeat” bills earlier this year that ban abortions at around six weeks of pregnancy.
Abortion rights groups seized on the numbers to argue that a majority of Americans support their efforts.
“Antiabortion politicians are clearly out of touch with what the public wants, and it will cost them their jobs in 2020,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, called on elected officials in states that have recently passed antiabortion policies to “hear their constituents speaking through this data.”
But Students for Life President Kristan Hawkins said it is “not surprising” that after “hearing only one side of the abortion debate most of the time, some people don’t understand that abortion doesn’t solve problems.”
“For more than 50 years, the abortion lobby has effectively shut down any real discussion of abortion, how it harms women and children, and the fact that it doesn’t empower women to end a life,” Hawkins said.
Students for Life and other organizations that oppose abortion are launching new efforts this year to increase awareness about options other than abortion, she said.
The PRRI survey underscores how partisan the abortion discussion has become.
The divergence between Democrats who support legal abortion and Republicans who don’t has grown from 28 to 36 points in the four years since the organization conducted a similar survey. A fifth of Americans said a political candidate’s abortion stance can be a “dealbreaker.”
While PRRI has not regularly asked about abortion being a “dealbreaker,” Gallup has asked a similar question, including this May. That polling organization found 29 percent of adults saying they would vote only for a candidate who shares their views on abortion, up from 20 percent in 2016 and from 16 percent in 2007.
Democrats and Republicans surveyed were more likely than independents to say they would vote only for a candidate who shares their views. About 25 percent of Democrats who believe abortion should be legal said they would vote only for a candidate who shares those views. As for Republicans, about 34 percent who think abortion should be illegal would vote only for a candidate who shares their view.
The PRRI survey found lower support for legal abortion, at 54 percent, than a Post-ABC poll this summer, which found 60 percent saying abortion should be legal in most or all cases. The lack of change over time contrasts with the Post-ABC poll and others showing growing support for abortion rights in recent years.
Another respected abortion poll, conducted by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist, released in June and involving 944 participants, found 13 percent of Americans surveyed wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade — the landmark Supreme Court case that upheld a woman’s right to abortion — while more than 75 percent of Americans said they believe it should be upheld. A strong majority — 61 percent — however, supported limitations on abortion such as allowing the procedure only in the first trimester.
Marist Poll Director Barbara Carvalho said at the time that while the political debate appears very polarized, many Americans “do see the issue as very complicated, very complex” and their positions “don’t fall along one side or the other.”
The PRRI survey also provides a window into how Americans may view recent efforts by the Trump administration, for instance, to roll back the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that insurers cover the costs of birth control and defund Planned Parenthood. The administration also recently announced new rules barring groups that provide abortions or abortion referrals from participating in a federal family planning program and is expected to redirect funds to more faith-based providers.
The PRRI survey found that 77 percent of participants believe government programs, such as Medicaid, should cover birth control. A smaller percentage, 46 percent, supports covering abortion services, while 48 percent oppose that.
The survey also shows how much attitudes differ within ethnic or religious groups. U.S.-born Hispanics, for instance, are far more supportive of legal abortion, compared to Hispanic people born elsewhere — with 59 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics believing it should be allowed in most or all cases, versus 33 percent of those born elsewhere.
The new survey also provided details about how religious differences play out: White and Hispanic evangelical Protestants oppose legal abortion at almost the same levels. Black evangelical Protestants support abortion with a narrow 51 percent majority but nonevangelical Protestants support it at 67 percent. White Catholics are narrowly supportive of legal abortion.
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