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.