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Despite Constant Debate, Americans' Abortion Opinions Rarely Change

Ted Cruz has strong views on abortion. Americans tend to be more ambivalent.
Olivier Douliery
Getty Images
Ted Cruz has strong views on abortion. Americans tend to be more ambivalent.

It's been a big week for abortion news.

Carly Fiorina's passionate (if inaccurate) depiction of a Planned Parenthood sting video was one of the most memorable moments of last week's GOP debate. And the House of Representatives on Friday passed two abortion-related bills — one aimed at cutting federal funds to Planned Parenthood, the other at punishing doctors who fail to provide medical care to infants that survive abortion attempts.

Given all this, you could be forgiven for thinking there's been a public-opinion shift against abortion rights in the U.S.

But you'd be wrong.

Abortion is one of those rare issues in which public opinion never seems to budge all that much. Americans are still more or less where they were on whether they think it should be legal as in 1975, just after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision. That is, with the largest share of Americans somewhere in the murky middle.

According to Gallup data, by 29 percent to 19 percent, Americans think it should be legal in all circumstances. But a majority — 51 percent — say it should be legal in only certain circumstances — in cases of rape, incest or where the mother's life is threatened, for example. That number has barely changed in 40 years.

Those kinds of data stand in stark contrast to what's available about other social issues. Consider same-sex marriage, for example, where public opinion has swung dramatically toward legalization in the past decade.

Or take the death penalty — upticks in crime and opposition to government spending are two factors that have driven Americans' opinions on this topic back and forth over the years.

Abortion isn't like that. Strong majorities have consistently opposed overturning Roe since 1989, today by nearly 2 to 1.

That's perhaps even more surprising when considering what's happened over the past 40 years: a patchwork of state laws passed to define very specific restrictions on abortion, a decline in teen pregnancy, and increasing political polarization. All of that has apparently neither caused nor been the result of big shifts in national public opinion on abortion.

So what's going on?

It might have to do with another fact about public opinion on abortion — it's a topic for which the realities are anything but black and white, which is exactly how the arguments are all too often framed in the political arena.

A majority of Americans support legal abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. But a majority also oppose it in the second and third trimesters. Most support it in cases of rape or incest, but most oppose it if the mother simply can't afford another child.

Those opinions get much messier when you dive deeper into the research.

"Not only is opinion remarkably stable ... it is deeply contradictory," said Karlyn Bowman, who studies public opinion at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. When people are asked, " 'Is it murder?' people say yes," Bowman said. But if asked, " 'Should it be a personal choice between a woman and her doctor?' a large majority say yes."

In one poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, 43 percent of Americans identified as both "pro-life" and "pro-choice." Those labels are their own source of uncertainty.

Since the mid-1990s, the share of people who consider themselves "pro-choice" (by Gallup's count) has fallen moderately — even while opinions on abortion circumstances have held steady. (Still, a majority — 50 percent — consider themselves "pro-choice," while 44 percent say they are "pro-life.")

These contradictions may be why public opinion holds so steady.

"When that [contradiction] happens on a public policy issue, when there are deep contradictions, most people pull away from an issue," Bowman said. "They don't see any reason to resolve the tensions in their opinions. So that leaves the topic up to the pro-life and the pro-choice activists. And those groups don't really represent most people."

Why Planned Parenthood is the focus

So if most Americans don't firmly oppose abortion, one might say it's foolhardy for Republicans, like this week's GOP debate participants, to stake such firm anti-abortion stances.

But abortion is an issue that fires up the bases of both parties. It's one of the top issues used by Republicans and Democrats to motivate, fundraise and organize.

What's more, though, the latest abortion fight isn't focused on the larger issue of abortion itself. It's been about Planned Parenthood. And recent surveys suggest that public opinion on the organization is more malleable than opinion on the topic of abortion.

Today, a plurality of Americans — 37 percent — view Planned Parenthood favorably, according to a recent Monmouth poll (with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points). But just three years ago, the same poll found that far more people — 55 percent — viewed the organization favorably.

It's just one survey, but it suggests that making the abortion debate about Planned Parenthood (and taxpayer money) may be a more successful tactic for the GOP than trying to pass laws restricting abortion itself.

Of course, that doesn't mean a shutdown over the issue would be a good idea for the GOP. The Republican Party's favorability rating fell sharply during the October 2013 partial government shutdown — making it one area where public opinion does tell a clear story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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