For nearly 50 years, public opinion has had only a limited effect on abortion policy. The Roe v. Wade decision, which the Supreme Court issued in 1973, established a constitutional right to abortion in many situations and struck down restrictions in dozens of states.
But now that the court has agreed to hear a case that could lead to the overturning of Roe, voters and legislators may soon again be determining abortion laws, state by state. This morning’s newsletter offers a guide to public opinion on the subject.
Americans’ views on abortion are sufficiently complex that both sides in the debate are able to point to survey data that suggests majority opinion is on their side — and then to argue that the data friendly to their own side is the “right” data. These competing claims can be confusing. But when you dig into the data, you discover there are some clear patterns and objective truths.
Here are five.
1. A pro-Roe majority …
Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans — 60 percent to 70 percent, in recent polls by both Gallup and Pew — say they do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. Similarly, close to 60 percent of Americans say they favor abortion access in either all or most circumstances, according to Pew.
These are the numbers that abortion rights advocates often emphasize.
2. … and a pro-restriction majority
The most confounding aspect of public opinion is a contradiction between Americans’ views on Roe itself and their views on specific abortion policies: Even as most people say they support the ruling, most also say they favor restrictions that Roe does not permit.
Roe, for example, allows only limited restrictions on abortion during the second trimester, mostly involving a mother’s health. But less than 30 percent of Americans say that abortion should “generally be legal” in the second trimester, according to Gallup. Many people also oppose abortion in specific circumstances — because a fetus has Down syndrome, for example — even during the first trimester.
One sign that many Americans favor significant restrictions is in the Gallup data. Gallup uses slightly different wording from Pew, creating an option that allows people to say that abortion should be legal “in only a few” circumstances. And that is the most popular answer — with 35 percent of respondents giving it (in addition to the 20 percent who say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances).
3. Remarkable stability
Opinion on some major political issues has changed substantially over the last half-century. On taxes and regulation, people’s views have ebbed and flowed. On some cultural issues — like same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization — views have moved sharply in one direction.
But opinion on abortion has barely budged. Here is Gallup’s four-category breakdown, going back to 1994:
Other survey questions show a similar pattern, with the stability stretching back to the 1970s, just after the Roe ruling.
A key reason is that abortion opinion differs only modestly by age group. Americans under 30 support abortion rights more strongly than Americans over 50, but the gap is not huge. The age gaps on marijuana legalization, same-sex marriage and climate change are all larger.
Abortion remains a vexing issue for large numbers of Americans in every generation — which suggests the debate is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.
4. A modest gender gap …
Gender plays a major role in American politics. Most women voted for Joe Biden, while most men voted for Donald Trump. On many issues, like gun control and the minimum wage, there is a large gender gap.
But the gap on abortion is not so large. If anything, it seems to be smaller than the partisan gap. That suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that there are more Democratic-voting women who favor significant abortion restrictions than Republican-voting women who favor almost universal access — while the opposite is true for men.
(One note: When people are asked whether they identify as “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” both the gender and age gaps grow. Those terms appear to prime people to think as Democrats or Republicans, rather than thinking through the details of their own policy views.)
5. … and a big class gap
One of the strongest predictors of a person’s view on abortion is educational attainment, as you can see in the chart above. Working-class Americans often favor restrictions. Many religiously observant people also favor restrictions.
It’s yet another way in which the Democratic coalition is becoming tilted toward college graduates and the Republican coalition is going in the other direction.
The bottom line
Both advocates and opponents of abortion access believe the issue is too important to be decided by public opinion. For advocates, women should have control over their bodies; after all, no major decision of men’s health is subject to a veto by politicians or other voters. And for opponents of abortion access, the life of an unborn child is too important to be subject to almost any other consideration.
If the Supreme Court overrules or substantially weakens Roe, this intense debate will play out state by state. Many states are likely to restrict abortion access substantially.
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‘Shrek’ at 20
Nobody at DreamWorks, then a relatively new animation studio, expected “Shrek” to be a hit. “Getting sent to ‘Shrek’ felt like being sent to Siberia,” the director Vicky Jenson said.
Released 20 years ago, the movie was a departure from other animated features of the time. Its hero was a misanthropic ogre. The cheeky and crude humor made fun of fairy-tale tropes. And the film was loaded with pop culture references and contemporary songs.
Yet “Shrek” went on to spawn a billion-dollar franchise and win the first Academy Award for best animated feature. It “defined the kind of films the studio would go on to make: offbeat stories that, unlike Disney fairy tales, had more of an edge to them,” as Gina Cherelus writes in The Times.
Today, Shrek-related content is ubiquitous in memes and on social media, introducing the film to a new generation. At a sushi restaurant years ago, Jenson was delighted to overhear nearby diners talking about it. “One of them says, ‘Have you seen “Shrek”?’ And the other one is like, ‘No, no, I don’t go see kids’ stuff,’ and they go: ‘No, no, it’s not for kids. You have to go see it.’” — Sanam Yar, a Morning writer
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was jocular. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.