Pages Navigation Menu

On the Eve of the March for Life: Abortion Skepticism Arrow Pointing Up

Ethicists and moral theologians spend a lot of time trying to convince Americans that they should think a certain way about abortion.  But on the eve of the March for Life, perhaps especially in light of all the battles that have been fought over the decades since Roe, we should take measure of where Americans are on abortion today. What have all the efforts produced?

Skeptics like to point out that support for Roe v Wade has remained solid over the years, but rarely do these numbers get interrogated beyond this citation.  Many people who are asked this poll question, for instance, wrongly believe that overturning Roe would ban all abortion in the United States. In a Pew Forum study released on the 40th anniversary of Roe we learned that only 62% percent of Americans even know the Roe v Wade decision is about abortion. Shockingly, for those younger than 30 years old, this number falls to 44%.

In light of this confusion, we get much better indicators when more specific questions are asked. Indeed, if the questions are asked the right way, what Americans believe about abortion could become an empirical question. According to a 2013 CNN poll, for instance, Americans thought abortion should be:

25%     Always Legal

11%     Legal in Most Circumstances

42%     Legal in Few Circumstances

20%     Always Illegal

A 2013 NBC News poll found something similar, though they added some specifics to the question about specific circumstances:

26%     Always Legal

19%     Legal Most of the Time

42%     Illegal Except in Cases of Rape, Incest and Mother’s Life

10%     Illegal without Exception

A CBS/New York Times poll, again, found similar numbers. This was in response to questions about abortion availability:

42%     Abortion should be Generally Available

35%     Abortion should be Available Under Stricter Limits

20%     Abortion Should not be Permitted

While an overwhelming majority of Americans support abortion rights in some very limited circumstances, a very solid majority think that abortion ought to be more widely restricted than it is now, and a majority also believe that abortion should be severely restricted.

But this is still a country with media, educational, and power structures dominated by white Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.  With the rise of Millennials and Hispanics in this country, many things will change.  But how will their rise to power change our country’s views on abortion?

Though Hispanics disproportionately vote Democrat, they do not identify with this party’s platform on abortion. As Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto of NBC Latino mentioned during the heat of the 2012 elections, “On the issue of abortion Latinos are significantly more pro-life that non-Latinos.” Only 38%, for instance, believe that abortion should be legal in “most” or “all” circumstances.

The shift toward abortion skepticism among young people is well-known, and it was the primary reason for the 2013 resignation of the NARAL’s 61 year old president, Nancy Keenan. This issue has been on their radar screen at least since a 2003 article in the New York Times titled, “Surprise Mom, I’m Against Abortion.” Then trends were clear even then:

A study of American college freshmen shows that support for abortion rights has been dropping since the early 1990’s: 54 percent of 282,549 students polled at 437 schools last fall by the University of California at Los Angeles agreed that abortion should be legal. The figure was down from 67 percent a decade earlier. A New York Times/CBS News poll in January found that among people 18 to 29, the share who agree that abortion should be generally available to those who want it was 39 percent, down from 48 percent in 1993.

And this trend has continued.  In 2010, for instance, Gallup found that, “support from making abortion illegal was growing fastest among young adults.” They found this to be “a sharp change from the late 1970s, when seniors were substantially more likely than younger age groups to want abortion to be illegal.” Remarkably, only 37% of Millennials consider abortion to be morally acceptable.

As a very large and diverse group of protesters–one that, unsurprisingly, is disproportionately young (they have all, no doubt, downloaded the March for Life app)–gather in DC to march for civil rights and equal protection of the laws for our prenatal children, they should take heart.  Americans are becoming more skeptical of abortion, and that trend looks to remain steady for the foreseeable future.



  1. Charlie,

    These are encouraging numbers, Charlie. What puzzles me is the mix of stats. People say they are pro-choice and pro-Roe, but express ambivalence about the morality of most actual abortions and say they want abortion to be less widely available. Yet, when voters have had the chance to restrict abortion, leaving only narrow exceptions, even in conservative states like South Dakota, they have rejected that option. Do you think this generation will be more willing to vote differently?

  2. It’s an interesting question, Julie. My own view is that the so-called personhood amendments (is that what you are referencing in South Dakota and other places?) were poorly written and presented, and allowed opponents to make the argument about something other than surgical abortion. Furthermore, perhaps without good reason, public opinion shifts dramatically as you go from talk about abortion in the first month or two…and into months three and four. So there’s that complexity to factor in as well.

    • Charlie and Julie– I think Julie is not referring to a personhood amendment, but this legislation: It seems to be a law that focuses specifically on outlawing abortions with narrow exceptions. So I think the key question is the path from survey response to legislative reality. Ask most people if they think government spending should be cut, ask most people if they think specific programs should be cut – the answers are not consistent. In terms of moving toward a more “culture of life” view about not having abortions, we are getting somewhere (though not with actual abortion numbers). In terms of moving toward legislation, I’m not so sure. Specifically, how does one overcome what I might call the “libertarian bias” where people tend to differentiate between their “personal opinion” and what they are willing to impose by law on others?

  3. I still believe we make an error when we think only of using criminal law to stop abortions. That leaves us waiting for the Roe case to be reversed by another. We have been waiting for decades, and millions of unborn children have died. Still we think of criminal law or of other forms of force, of shaming, of negative approaches that impute a callous attitude on the part of the potential mother.

    I believe social justice is the trail to avoiding abortion. I believe abortion is largely the result of deep and profound fear of the consequences of being a mother. Fear of loss of education. Fear of loss of food. Fear of loss of housing. Fear of the child being a victim of poverty. Fear of loss of social status. Fear of being cast out by parents. I understand that their are surveys of women who face abortion or have had abortion that bear out my belief. Society is in a position to deal with these fears, to cause those fears to become joys at problems solved. But we have to stop dealing with mothers of children born as people who should have crossed their legs, and now that they have problems they remain their problems.

    • Hi, W8. I accept your main point: namely, we cannot get lost in the attempts to use criminal law. But isn’t that an awkward phrase to use? “Criminal law?” Were protesters in the 1960s focused too much on “criminal law” when they pushed for civil rights for women and racial minorities? Justice means equal protection of the laws: for all, and especially the most vulnerable.

      Now, it must be acknowledged that, too often, the pro-life movements get lost in their attempts to get civil rights for prenatal children, especially when it comes to a kind of idolatry of the Republican party. We should be pushing for civil rights for women (equal pay for equal work, child care, strong anti-discrimination laws in hiring and firing, more social safety nets, etc.) at the same time we push for them for prenatal children. And we should be pushing for them *because it is what we owe women* regardless of how such changes impact abortion rates.

      Indeed, I fear they may not impact abortion rates as you suggest. While we could expect a small (though significant) lowering of abortion rates if we give women what they are owed, Europe shows us that countries may still have a very high abortion rate even with the social justice structures in place that you suggest.

  4. Taking a look at the figures in the polls listed above, it seems to me that only about 20% of Americans believe that a person with a right to life comes into existence at the moment of conception. Otherwise the percentage who would prohibit all abortions would be significantly higher, “personhood” amendments would gain more support. (Also, the most recent poll I can find shows 60% of Americans consider embryonic stem-cell research to be morally acceptable, with 32% saying it is morally wrong.) I have also found it is quite rare even among the strongest pro-life advocates to maintain a woman who procures an abortion should be held legally responsible for her choice in any way at all,no matter how modest the penalty (say, a $50 fine for the first, $100 for the second, and so on). In many ways, it is difficult to talk about an arrow and which way it is pointing when so few people seem to have a morally coherent position on abortion.

    • Hi David…thanks for engaging.

      First, even if these are incoherent positions (and I don’t think they necessarily are…though I don’t necessarily agree with them either), a clear trend of skepticism toward abortion can still be discerned. Often individual people have something other than a coherent positions on an issue while still having a clear general orientation…and we’d certainly expect this in huge polls like the one I cited.

      Second, and it is certainly too complex to make a full case here, but I don’t think the positions you’ve described are inherently incoherent. The exceptions that the polls showed nearly half the country has for rape and life of the mother are not connected to their views about the moral status of the baby in those situations. Plenty of people believe (rightly or wrongly) that the babies who would die in the exceptional abortions they support are still persons with a right to life, but that abortion is those cases is legitimate self-defense. Furthermore, plenty of people (again, rightly or wrongly) put ESCR into a different moral category because (1) the embryos killed are almost certainly going to die anyway and (2) they believe that embryos, because they can twin and recombine, are not individual persons with a right to life. Views about ESCR are not indicative of views on surgical abortion. Finally, most pro-lifers understand that women are the victims of our abortion policies, and not exploiters of them. Thus the people to punish are physicians, not women who are coerced (often by men and our culture are large) into these terrible situations. Again, we may agree or disagree with these positions, but it is too strong to call them incoherent.

      • Charles,

        Thanks for your reply. It might be the case that pro-life advocates could believe life begins at conception but accept ESCR because the embryos used are going to die anyway. But then why do they accept unregulated creation of embryos by fertility clinics? It seems to me the pro-life movement is concerned about “snowflake babies” but not concerned enough to lobby to have their creation limited or prohibited.

        You say:

        Finally, most pro-lifers understand that women are the victims of our abortion policies, and not exploiters of them.

        I would say understand is the wrong word. Maintain might be more appropriate. I don’t know how this position can be reconciled with Mother Teresa saying, “And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?” I don’t know how it can be reconciled with the canonical penalty of excommunication for abortion. In canon law, there is a latae sentential excommunication for performing an abortion only because a person who does so is in formal cooperation the the mother procuring one (Can. 1398).

        It seems to me both sides must give up the fictions they create about women who procure abortions. The pro-choice side claims they are all very serious individuals who only procure an abortion after deep soul-searching and consultation with their doctors, family, and clergy. The pro-life side sees them as victims. Let’s be honest. Approximately half of women each year who procure abortions have had one (or more) previously. Why women choose abortion can be investigated empirically, and large numbers of women give reasons that do not at all sound like what “victims” would say (e.g. gave completed my childbearing; Not ready for a(nother) child;
        Don’t want people to know I had sex or got pregnant).

Leave a Comment