Published May 3, 2022
In defense of Roe v. Wade, abortion supporters often cite polls showing that about seven in ten Americans say they don’t want Roe overturned. This is an odd rhetorical strategy from abortion supporters considering that, if most Americans really do support the Roe status quo, they presumably would elect lawmakers to enact their pro-abortion policy preferences via the democratic process rather than by judicial fiat — but that solution is insufficient for abortion’s most vocal supporters.
That’s because public opinion on abortion is far more complex than they want to admit, and it cannot be captured by simply asking people if they want Roe overturned. For one thing, surveys suggest that many Americans don’t even know Roe dealt with abortion, as well as that a majority of Americans believe overturning Roe would lead to abortion being illegal across the entire country, a status quo that most Americans don’t support. In reality, if the Court does end up overturning Roe and Casey in a decision similar to the draft leaked last night, each state would be allowed to set its own abortion policy.
The public lack of knowledge about Roe — and its conflict with actual public opinion on abortion — was captured well by a Fox News poll last September, which found that 65 percent of Americans said they oppose reversing Roe. But, absurdly, the same survey found that respondents were perfectly split on whether abortion should be legal, tied at 49 percent. A substantial number of Americans, in other words, both want abortion to be illegal and want to preserve jurisprudence making it essentially impossible to prohibit abortion. This outcome was possible only because a sizable percentage of the population doesn’t know that abortion can’t be regulated at all until Roe is gone.
Meanwhile, polls that ask Americans for their views on specific abortion policies tend to find that most Americans disagree with the status quo created by the Court in Roe and Doe v. Bolton and bolstered in Casey — namely, that abortion must be legal across all 50 states, for nearly any reason, and at nearly any time in pregnancy.
For instance, a Gallup poll from a few years back found that only 28 percent of Americans favor allowing abortion in the second trimester, and only 13 percent of Americans favor allowing it in the last three months of pregnancy — compared to 60 percent who would allow it in the first trimester.
Polling from Marist likewise suggests that most Americans tend not to support elective abortion later in pregnancy. A January 2022 survey from Marist, commissioned by the Knights of Columbus, found that nearly three-quarters of Americans would allow abortion only in the first trimester or in the so-called hard cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother, if they would permit abortion at all. A mere 17 percent of respondents told Marist abortion should be legal at any time in pregnancy for any reason, and less than a third of Democrats agreed.
Public-opinions polls don’t tell the whole story when it comes to how Americans view abortion, but the best data certainly suggest that they are far less supportive of Roe and unlimited abortion than the Left wants you to believe.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.