Published June 9, 2021
Every summer, Gallup releases the results of an extensive survey of Americans’ attitudes toward abortion, and this year’s poll is especially of interest, as it comes less than a month after the Supreme Court agreed to hear its first major case in decades reviewing a state-level restriction on abortion — Mississippi’s ban on most abortions after 15 weeks’ gestation.
In addition to asking about Roe v. Wade and several types of abortion regulations, the survey posed a series of questions about general attitudes toward abortion. One asked respondents to say whether they considered themselves pro-choice or pro-life and found that Americans are almost evenly split: Forty-nine percent say they’re pro-choice, and 47 percent say they’re pro-life.
Over the last few decades of conducting this survey, Gallup has found consistently that pro-choice and pro-life positions poll evenly. As recently as 2019, the pro-life position had a slight edge, with 49 percent saying they were pro-life compared to 46 percent pro-choice. The last time either position had a more significant advantage in the Gallup survey was 2012, when 50 percent said they were pro-life and just 41 percent reported being pro-choice.
While responses to this question have tended to indicate a nearly even split in public opinion on abortion more broadly — and can reveal slight shifts depending on the year — it isn’t especially useful in understanding attitudes toward abortion policy, not least because the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” can be interpreted in a variety of ways and go undefined by Gallup.
In another question, this year’s poll shows that, while Americans are about evenly split on the morality of abortion, for the first time, a plurality reports believing abortion is morally acceptable. Over the last two decades, not a single Gallup poll has found that more Americans believe abortion is moral than believe it is immoral. In this year’s survey, 47 percent said abortion is morally acceptable, while 46 percent said it is morally wrong.
Finally, on the subject of abortion’s legality, the Gallup survey asked respondents whether abortion should be legal “under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances.” Two-thirds of respondents believe that abortion should either be illegal (19 percent) or should be legal only under certain circumstances. Just one-third of respondents said abortion should be legal under any circumstances, which is the official position of the Democratic Party.
Of those who said abortion should be legal “only under certain circumstances,” Gallup next inquired as to whether they believed abortion should be legal in “most circumstances or only in a few circumstances.” Respondents broke heavily in favor of “only a few circumstances” (33 percent of the overall sample), while just 13 percent said abortion should be legal in most circumstances.
While it is encouraging that a slim majority believes abortion should either be illegal or be legal only in a few circumstances, Gallup also found that most Americans oppose specific types of abortion regulations. This year’s poll asked respondents about bans on abortion after 18 weeks’ gestation, after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, and after a prenatal diagnosis with a genetic disease. In all three cases, a majority said they’d oppose such a law.
It’s worth noting, however, that these results don’t comport with other surveys on attitudes toward abortion regulations, perhaps in part because Gallup’s questions use the phrase “ban on abortions” and offer no context or information about possible exceptions included in the law. Consider, for instance, a January Marist poll finding that most Americans — including a majority of pro-choice Americans — believe abortion should be limited to the first three months of pregnancy, if it’s permitted at all, and that 70 percent of respondents oppose abortions chosen after a fetus is diagnosed with Down syndrome.
Finally, Gallup asked respondents whether or not they’d “like to see the Supreme Court overturn its 1973 Roe versus Wade decision concerning abortion” and found that a majority (58 percent) opposes overturning Roe. Like other surveys of this sort, however, Gallup failed to explain what Roe did and what would happen if it were overturned, opening up the possibility that some significant percentage of respondents answered the question without knowing what their answer meant.
Unfortunately, most Americans are unaware of how Roe actually changed abortion policy. A Pew poll in 2013, for example, found that only 62 percent of Americans even knew Roe had to do with abortion; among younger respondents, it fell to 44 percent. How much less must Americans know, then, that Roe and its companion case Doe v. Bolton essentially legalized abortion on demand for the entire country?
The results from Gallup’s Roe polling in particular are sure to figure prominently in debates over the Court’s upcoming case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, as abortion advocates insist that most Americans want Roe to remain in place. But as most surveys, including Gallup’s, suggest, public opinion on abortion remains far more complex than that, and with the legacy of Roe firmly entrenched, Americans who dissent from abortion on demand have little room to enact their preferred policies.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.