How Americans Really Feel About Abortion Rights in the Year 2020
It's a fair question. Overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that confirmed abortion was a right protected by the Constitution, has been the explicit aim of anti-abortion rights politicians and activists for decades. Justice Ginsburg's death provides an opportunity for President Donald Trump to nominate another anti-abortion rights judge and therefore make the possibility of overturning the landmark case all the more likely.
Justice Ginsburg was one of the few remaining liberal-leaning judges on the current court; her death cleared the way for President Donald Trump to nominate an anti-abortion rights judge who, if installed to the court, could clinch the majority vote required to eventually overturn the landmark case.
If this Roe v. Wade conversation feels like déjà vu, that's because it is. Our public debate around abortion has largely remained the same for nearly five decades. The '70s-era argument that fetuses have rights, for example, ultimately informed several bills that granted personhood status to fetuses in 2019. The wave of abortion bans last year (nearly all of which were overturned or challenged in court) designed to challenge Roe echoed a similar wave of laws passed in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Yet the extreme views on abortion shaping much of this country's policy on the issue have never represented the opinion of most Americans. A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that 61 percent of Americans say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while only 28 percent believe that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. The support is heartening, especially since access to safe, affordable abortion care is a cornerstone of reproductive and economic well-being for all people with uteruses (and their families). But with so much at stake right now for abortion rights and access—including the fate of Roe as well as that of the Affordable Care Act—the disconnect between policy and public opinion deserves some thorough exploration.
In order to better understand how most Americans—not pundits, not elected officials—feel about abortion, Well+Good examined several sets of recent polling data conducted by groups including Gallup, Pew Research Center, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). We then asked various experts in the reproductive rights and justice space to help us better understand the numbers and trends that we saw in order to paint a more accurate picture of where America truly stands on abortion.
No matter how you slice and dice the various data out there, it's clear that a majority of Americans are in favor of abortion being legal in all or most instances. But what informs those beliefs is deeply nuanced and does not always reflect the conversations surrounding abortion in the media and on the national stage. Understanding these complexities (and ensuring our elected officials do the same) will be key to ensuring comprehensive abortion and reproductive care access in the next decade.
What data says about Americans' support of abortion rights
Various polls and studies have asked Americans how they feel about abortion since the mid-1970s. Typically, these polls ask participants whether they identify as "pro-life" or "pro-choice" as well as whether they think abortion should be legal in all cases, in some/certain cases, or not at all. For this project, we honed in specifically on the legality question because, while a person can call themselves "pro-life" or "pro-choice" (two highly polarized terms), that identification doesn't always match up with what a person thinks should be law.
That being said, there is some nuance to be considered when using legality to judge how people view abortion, says Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH). "How many of us walk around in the world, thinking about, you know, the state of legality of most things?" she asks. "People think about [abortion] in the context of their lives and the context of the people they know." There is also a lot of variation in where people fall in the "legal in most/some cases" category. For example, while someone might not think abortion should be illegal outright, they might feel that there should be restrictions on who can provide abortions or where and when they can be performed. That technically puts them in the same category as someone who is generally supportive of abortion being legal but may be uncomfortable with the idea of someone getting an abortion in the third trimester.
It's also very important to note that Americans generally don't have a great understanding of the scientific facts around abortion—which impacts their views on the subject. The Kaiser Family Foundation's Abortion Knowledge and Attitudes report from 2020 shows that a troubling percentage of respondents believed false statements about abortion, including that it can affect your fertility (26 percent), that it's less safe than giving birth (30 percent), and that 20-49 percent of all abortions occur more than 20 weeks into pregnancy (31 percent). (None of these statements are true.)
With all of that in mind, we sought to compile the most recent data looking at how people feel about abortion by age group, gender, location, political affiliation, race and ethnicity, and religious affiliation. The findings might challenge the stereotypes you may hold about how certain groups view this crucial reproductive justice issue.
Gallup's 2020 Abortion Trends by Age report shows that, while younger people are most likely to support abortion being legal in all or most circumstances, there is an overwhelming amount of support for abortion being legal at every age group.
Younger people are particularly supportive of abortion because they understand it as an economic justice issue, says Destiny Lopez, co-director of abortion rights activism group All* Above All. "If you don't have the money to get to your abortion, it is going to then prevent you from realizing some of your other pursuits and potentially limit your economic opportunities," she says, "so [this demographic] understands and sees these issues as not siloed." This perspective makes a whole lot of sense considering that the millennial and Gen Z generations came of age during economic hardships (the Great Recession for millennials and the COVID-19 economic downturn for Gen Z).
Chelsea*, 28, saw her own abortion as the way to ensure a better future. She decided to get an abortion when she was in college after being assaulted by her boyfriend. "I never thought I would be able to have an abortion, [but] I knew what I needed to do to keep my life on the path I had planned," she recalls. "I think it did afford me the opportunity to finish college, get a good job, and find a person that I did want to be with, and now we've started a family," she says. "Being kind of forced to have a kid at 20 would definitely have made things really hard and a lot different."
But the support of older generations for legal abortion shouldn't be discounted. Gallup found that 80 percent of people aged 50 and older think that abortion should be legal in all or some circumstances. Similarly, 73 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds think abortion should be legal in all or some circumstances.
Holly*, 58, is among the "legal in some circumstances" group. While she says that she hadn't "formed an opinion" of abortion growing up (she graduated high school six years after the Roe v. Wade decision), her education and training in social work made her realize how much contraception and abortion access could impact the economic future and well-being of families. Her views have only solidified now that she has grandchildren. "I look at my granddaughters and if they were ever to get in a situation where either they needed or wanted an abortion, I would want them to be able to do so safely," she says.
"I think women...generally are more supportive of these issues [than men]," says Lopez. But she says polling from All* Above All shows that there is a very small gap between men and women's support for abortion—a gap reflected in data released by Gallup in June 2020. According to Gallup, 25 percent of men and 32 percent of women believe abortion should be legal under any circumstances; 54 percent of men and 46 percent of women think abortion should be legal under certain circumstances. Twenty percent of men and 20 percent of women think abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. (These data do not necessarily reflect how trans men and women, as well as non-binary people, feel about this issue—W+G was unable to find national polling data on abortion support among these groups.)
"We traditionally think of the coasts as being the place where support for abortion access is the strongest," says Lopez. Data supports this assumption in many cases. Pew Research Center's 2014 Religious Landscape Survey shows that states in the Northeast have some of the highest support for abortion being legal in all or most cases. (Massachusetts has the highest amount of support for abortion at 74 percent.) The Religious Landscape Survey also shows that states in the South (and parts of the Midwest) tend to be less supportive of abortion being legal. In Indiana, less than half (43 percent) of people think abortion should be legal in all or most cases; in Mississippi, only 36 percent of people feel that way.
However, Lopez says we shouldn't rule out grassroots support of abortion in these regions—particularly in battleground states, aka states that could "flip" either for Republicans or Democrats in any given election. "In our last poll that we did [on Medicaid coverage of abortion]...folks in these battleground states...actually were more supportive on the issue of abortion coverage than the national sample, which included all the states," she says.
Some states with stringent anti-abortion laws, such as Alabama, seem to be in lockstep with the views of their citizens. But others don't have the polling to support such measures. Take Ohio, a state that passed a bill in 2019 that would have restricted abortion once fetal cardiac activity was detected (which typically occurs at six weeks of pregnancy). The bill was blocked in federal court, but Ohio still has strict regulations of abortion care that remain legal, including a mandatory 24-hour waiting period and restrictions on coverage through state health insurance. Yet the Religious Landscape Survey found that Ohio's citizens are more divided in their views on abortion than the state's laws would seem to indicate, with 48 percent of Ohioans believing abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 47 percent saying it should be illegal in all or most cases.
Similarly, in Iowa—which is seeking to update its state constitution to strip away abortion protections—the Religious Landscape Survey found that 52 percent of its citizens support abortion being legal in all or most cases, while 46 percent feel it should be illegal in all or most cases. Like Ohio, this state also has some fairly strict regulations on abortion in place, including a ban on all abortions after 20 weeks (only exceptions being made to preserve the mother's life or health) and a requirement that people get an ultrasound and counseling on adoption services and the purported dangers of abortion before receiving treatment. More recent efforts to ban abortion after six weeks were found unconstitutional in January 2019.
Since the mid-1970s, the Republican party has actively positioned itself as anti-abortion rights, while the Democratic party has sought to preserve Roe v. Wade as the law of the land. But given that national polling data shows 61 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, "that [support] has to cross party lines," says Lopez.
Indeed, a 2020 Gallup survey found that while 68 percent of Republicans self-identify as "pro-life," (which has traditionally been associated with the anti-abortion rights movement), 59 percent of Republicans also believe abortion should be legal in some cases. However, Republicans are also more likely to think abortion should be illegal in all cases (27 percent) compared to Democrats (just 8 percent), and far less likely to think it should be legal in all cases (13 percent, compared to Democrats' 49 percent).
Democrats have historically been more likely to support abortion overall, but the gap between those who think it should be legal in all circumstances and those who think it should be legal under certain circumstances has shifted over the last two decades. Gallup's polling shows that 46 percent of Democrats believed that abortion should be legal in all cases in 2016; 33 percent believed this in 2010, and 31 percent in 2000.
While abortion rights have seemed like a Republican versus Democrat debate, Lopez says we shouldn't discount the importance of Independents in the fight for reproductive justice. "They tend to be more supportive [of abortion issues], certainly than Republicans...and we know that Independents can play really pivotal roles in election years as well," she says. Gallup's polling shows that 76 percent of Independents think abortion should be legal in all (26 percent) or some (50 percent) circumstances.
Race and ethnicity
Race and ethnicity are some of the most complicated lenses through which to view abortion sentiment. Polling data tends to have people self-identify their race or ethnicity using broad, often out-dated terminology commonly used on the census. (Calling one group "Asian/Pacific Islander," or "Native American," for example, erases the hundreds of cultures that make up such large, diverse communities.) No one race or ethnicity is a monolith—within each group, there are always varying opinions of any one issue, including abortion.
With that said, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) 2018 American Values Atlas found that the majority of nearly every racial and ethnic group it polled is supportive of abortion in many or most cases. Sixty percent of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans and 58 percent of Black Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 53 percent of Native Americans and 55 percent of white Americans felt the same. PRRI found that Hispanic Americans tended to be less in favor of abortion, with 48 percent believing abortion should be illegal in all or most cases and 45 percent in favor of it being legal in all or most cases. (The picture changes slightly when factoring in where a person was born—PRRI found that 59 percent of Hispanics born in one of the U.S. states say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to just 33 percent of those born in a country outside of the U.S.)
But there's more to the story for many of these groups. Take the Latinx community, which Margie Del Castillo, director of field and advocacy at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, argues is more supportive of abortion than some polls suggest. "Whatever their personal opinion about abortion may be, most Latinos support a loved one in their decision to seek abortion care," she says—nearly nine in 10, according to a 2018 survey by the organization. Latinx communities have also been willing to mobilize to fight for reproductive health access and coverage, she adds—including by lobbying lawmakers in Virginia to help pass the state's Reproductive Health Protection Act in February.
Black Americans also gets far less credit for their strong support for abortion than they deserve—support that's driven by their strong belief in bodily autonomy, says Marcela Howell, president and CEO of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women's Reproductive Justice Agenda. "When white women were fighting over the right to have an abortion, Black women were fighting over the right not to be sterilized, the right to have children," she says. A history of medical racism informs how many Black women view not just abortion, argues Howell, but health care in general. She cites a 2017 report from PerryUndem titled "The Lives and Voices of Black America," which found that 89 percent of respondents (all Black adults) agreed with the statement: "Each woman should have the right to make her own decision on abortion, even if I may disagree with her decision."
Understanding abortion sentiment among Indigenous communities is a bit more complex, as there are hundreds of different tribes in the U.S. with different cultural practices and perspectives. But case studies (and the above data from PRRI) give us a sense that, in general, there is support for abortion rights and access among various different Indigenous groups. A small survey commissioned by the Southwest Women's Law Center in 2020 found that 81 percent of Native Americans in New Mexico (the population and area studied) agreed with the statement that women and families deserve to make their own health-care decisions without government interference. Additionally, only 25 percent of those surveyed said they would support laws that would make it a criminal offense for doctors to perform abortions.
Terrelene Massey, 44, who is a member of the Navajo Nation and lives in New Mexico, says that, in her experience, Navajo culture deeply shapes how people in her community feel about abortion and other issues. "Traditionally, we are a matrilineal society and women organize, they administer, they manage the household," she says. From her perspective, she says women in her community are empowered to make their own decisions to manage their families—which extends to their choices about abortion care.
Abortion became a national political issue in the late 1970s and early 1980s thanks to the marriage of interests between white evangelical Christians and Republican policymakers. The issue has also had some significance historically with Catholics, given the Catholic Church's stance against abortion and contraception (although the latter has been a bit more relaxed under Pope Francis).
Broad polling data from the PRRI's 2018 American Values Atlas shows some of these dynamics at play when it comes to how people of different faiths view abortion. White evangelical protestants poll very low in support of abortion being legal in all or most cases, along with Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. Meanwhile, non-Christian faiths, including Judaism, Buddhism, and Hindusim, tend to be more supportive of abortion being legal in most or all cases.
However, the assumption that "Catholic" inherently means "anti-abortion" is untrue. PRRI's data found that 52 percent of white Catholics think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, along with 41 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 55 percent of what they survey called non-white Catholics. These data are not surprising to Miller. "Being religious, and even very strongly religious, isn't necessarily the same as or necessarily correlate to being opposed to legal abortion," she says. Miller cites a variety of factors, including a "generational effect" of younger people being more supportive of abortion rights, as well as the extremism of the GOP platform under Trump being a turn-off for some, playing into the shift of Catholic beliefs.
Holly says she has struggled to reconcile her religious beliefs with her support of abortion. She recalls attending a pro-abortion rights demonstration in the late '80s in southern California and finding her pastor on the anti-abortion side. But she says the extremism of the anti-abortion movement—which includes many prominent evangelical leaders—has only solidified her convictions. "Over the years, there have been several cases where there have been shootings at abortion clinics, killings of doctors at abortion clinics, protesters, and people screaming obscenities... I look at that behavior and I think to myself as a Christian, 'Is that a Christ-like behavior?'"
Race and ethnicity lend some additional nuance to how religion impacts a person's opinion on abortion. Howell says that there's long been a false assumption that Black women are opposed to abortion because they tend to be religious. "It's exactly the opposite," she says. "For people who are opposed to anybody having an abortion, very often, religion is used as the excuse," says Howell, but she believes that the anti-abortion rights movement is really "about controlling what women do with their bodies." As mentioned earlier, many Black people deeply value bodily autonomy, which to her explains why PRRI found that 56 percent of Black Protestants (including 51 percent of Black evangelicals and 67 percent of Black non-evangelicals) believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases.
While PRRI found a majority of Hispanic Catholics think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, Del Castillo reiterates that many Latinx folks empathize with and understand the decisions people make about their reproductive care. She cites a poll conducted by PerryUndem in 2018 that found that 62 percent of registered Catholic Latinx voters do not want Roe v. Wade overturned and 53 percent can imagine a scenario in which abortion would be the right choice for them or their partner.
How far does support for abortion go, and what does support actually look like?
As mentioned earlier, there is a gradation of opinion among people who believe that abortion should be legal under most or certain circumstances. In order to understand that variance of opinion, we further explored the aforementioned KFF Abortion Knowledge and Attitudes report, which dove deep into this topic.
The report found that while the majority of people are generally supportive of abortion being legal in some form, most people are fairly comfortable putting some restrictions or limitations on abortion rights and access. For example, 66 percent of those surveyed said they support laws requiring people to wait 24 hours between meeting with a health-care provider and getting an abortion, and 57 percent said they support laws requiring doctors to show and describe ultrasound images to people seeking an abortion. These are examples of laws that are designed to make it harder for people to get abortions, and yet a clear majority of respondents (which includes people who support abortion) supported these measures.
Anti-abortion rights rhetoric and misinformation has seeped into mainstream understanding of abortion. Miller theorizes that misinformation is able to persist because the stigma surrounding abortion keeps people from talking about it openly.
Americans also agree with certain anti-abortion positions but are sometimes willing to change their minds when provided with accurate information. The KFF report asked people if they support laws that require abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges—laws that, in Texas and elsewhere, forced the closure of clinics—and initially, 69 percent of people said they supported these laws. But when pollsters asked the question again after informing participants that complications from abortion are very rare, 16 percent of people changed their mind to oppose these laws. Similarly, 49 percent of people said they support laws banning abortions once fetal cardiac activity is detected (often misleadingly referred to as "heartbeat bans"); once informed that fetal cardiac activity is detectable before most people know they're pregnant, support dropped to 38 percent.
These responses seem to show that anti-abortion rights rhetoric and misinformation have seeped into mainstream understanding of abortion. Miller theorizes that misinformation is able to persist because the stigma surrounding abortion keeps people from talking about it openly—allowing an anti-abortion narratives to persist without challenge. "We're all being essentially held hostage by the extreme views of a pretty narrow, pretty small group of people," she says. But these extreme views don't always hold up to a popular vote, she says, citing examples of ballot measures in North Dakota and dozens of other states that failed to get widespread support to ban or restrict abortion.
There are also limits to how far most Americans are willing to go to regulate abortion. The KFF report found that a minority of people support laws that would make it a crime for doctors to perform abortions (34 percent) or a crime for people to get abortions (25 percent). Even among people who think abortion should be illegal in most cases, 76 percent say there should be an exception for cases of rape or incest, and 84 percent think there should be an exception if the patient's life is endangered. Despite the attempts of states like Alabama to enact laws that would punish people for performing or receiving abortion care, these sentiments are not shared by a majority of Americans.
How will our views on abortion impact the election?
"Access to abortion care, like access to reproductive health care writ large, is deeply inequitable in this country," says Rachel Fey, senior director of public policy at Power to Decide. "Whether those kinds of inequities can be addressed or not does depend on the views of policymakers in Congress." As well as, of course, who sits in the White House.
As for how abortion specifically will shape people's votes... that obviously remains to be seen. Gallup polling from May 2020 found that 24 percent of U.S. adults say that they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion, and 47 percent say that a candidate's position on the issue is one of several key factors they consider. "I think that people in this country are very concerned about access to reproductive health care," says Fey. Lopez agrees and says that the onslaught of abortion bans in the South and Midwest last year added urgency to the issue. "I think white women in particular became more aware of what many of us already knew: that abortion was largely out of reach and was becoming more so through all of these state actions and also through the actions of this administration," she says.
"People in this country are very concerned about access to reproductive health care." —Rachel Fey, senior director of public policy, Power to Decide
"What is particularly different about this election year, quite frankly, is the fate of the Affordable Care Act," Fey adds. While then-candidate Trump was fairly explicit in 2016 about his intention to get rid of the ACA, she says the stakes feel higher for more people in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying economic collapse. "[This year] has really centered issues of health care in general in a way that I think is different," she says. Health care affects one's ability to afford contraception, preventative reproductive health care, and abortion care; rolling back or eliminating the ACA altogether will therefore harm many, particularly low-income folks and people of color.
Reproductive health care is certainly a big consideration for both Holly and Massey as they head to the polls this fall. "[Abortion] is definitely one of several factors that I personally consider," says Massey. She says when she looks into any candidate, their stance on abortion is one of the five things that she needs to know. "To me, that talks about how that person feels about women and women's rights and the role that women play in this economy, in this country," she says. "For me, having my granddaughters, [abortion is] a high priority. It's not the highest, but it's definitely a high priority," adds Holly.
Chelsea says she'll likely sit out this election cycle. "I wish we had better choices. I'm a pretty strong Independent, and if I was going to vote, it would be for anybody but the two main candidates," she says. While she recognizes that abortion and reproductive care access "could get a lot worse," depending on the outcome of this election, this hasn't been enough to motivate her to cast her vote.
How you can support abortion access in your community
Voting this year is vital to securing the future of equitable abortion access in this country. But there's so much more you can do to protect abortion rights beyond casting your ballot.
Fey says you can start by calling your senators and congressional representatives and asking them to support the Women's Health Protection Act, which would make it illegal to put medically-unnecessary restrictions on abortion care that wouldn't be applied to other health procedures. You can also ask them to support the EACH Woman Act, which would overturn the Hyde Amendment—a federal law from the '70s that prevents federal tax dollars (including federal Medicaid money) from being used to fund the majority of abortion care. (Both bills have been stalled since 2019.)
Don't assume that you're off the hook if you live in a blue state or have pro-abortion rights representatives, either. "People don't realize how important communicating with your elected officials is," says Fey. Politicians are constantly juggling priorities, and radio silence from their constituents on an issue like abortion might mean that they don't fight as hard for a particular bill in favor of another one. "When [politicians] hear from people about the issues that are important to them, that notches that issue up on their priority scale," she says.
"I sincerely believe that the choice of a woman to control her own body needs to be one of the premises of any equitable society." —Holly, 58
While former Vice President Joe Biden's and President Trump's respective stances on abortion are fairly clear, Fey says it's crucial to educate yourself about the views of other people on the ballot in your city and state. "It's about making sure that the people who represent you advocate [for] and stand behind the policies that improve reproductive well-being," she says. Power to Decide has a list of questions to ask candidates (whether it's via email or at a virtual campaign event) to help suss out their perspective on various aspects of reproductive and abortion rights.
If you have means, you can also donate money to ensure someone is able to afford the reproductive and abortion care they need. Options include the National Network of Abortion Funds, The Brigid Alliance, and Power to Decide's BCBenefits Access Fund.
There's certainly a lot at stake with this election—including what feels like the soul of this very nation. But for people who care about abortion rights and access, the November 3 election is a prime opportunity to start ensuring that our country's laws truly match the will and desires of its people. "I sincerely believe that the choice of a woman to control her own body needs to be one of the premises of any equitable society," says Holly. For all the people in the U.S. who rely upon (and benefit from) abortion care, now is the time to make your voice heard.
*Name has been changed or withheld for privacy reasons.
With reporting by Kara Brown, Erin Bunch, and Kells McPhillips.
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