Released: October 1, 2009
Support For Abortion Slips
Issue Ranks Lower on the Agenda
Polls conducted in 2009 have found fewer Americans expressing support for abortion than in previous years. In Pew Research Center polls in 2007 and 2008, supporters of legal abortion clearly outnumbered opponents; now Americans are evenly divided on the question, and there have been modest increases in the numbers who favor reducing abortions or making them harder to obtain. Less support for abortion is evident among most demographic and political groups.
The latest Pew Research Center survey also reveals that the abortion debate has receded in importance, especially among liberals. At the same time, opposition to abortion has grown more firm among conservatives, who have become less supportive of finding a middle ground on the issue and more certain of the correctness of their own views on abortion.
No single reason for the shift in opinions is apparent, but the pattern of changes suggests that the election of a pro-choice Democrat for president may be a contributing factor. Among Republicans, there has been a seven point decline in support for legal abortion and a corresponding six point increase in opposition to abortion. But the change is smaller among Democrats, whose support for legal abortion is down four points with no corresponding increase in pro-life opinion. Indeed, three groups of President Obama’s strongest supporters – African Americans, young people and those unaffiliated with a religion – have not changed their views on abortion at all. At the same time, fully half of conservative Republicans (52%) – the political group most opposed to abortion – say they worry Obama will go too far in supporting abortion rights.
The shift in opinion is broad-based, appearing in most demographic groups in the population. One of the largest shifts (10 points) has occurred among white, non-Hispanic Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly. Substantial change has also occurred among Democratic men (with support for abortion down nine points), but not among Democratic women.
This shift in attitudes is also evident on other measures of public opinion about restrictions on abortion. For instance, four-in-ten Americans (41%) now say they favor making it more difficult to obtain an abortion, up six points from 35% in 2007. Similar movement is seen on the question of whether it would be good to reduce the number of abortions in this country; in 2005, 59% of respondents agreed it would be good to reduce abortions. Today 65% take this view, an increase of six points. And three-quarters (76%) continue to favor requiring minors to obtain the permission of a parent before having an abortion.
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted Aug. 11-27 among 4,013 adults reached on both landlines and cell phones, also finds that fewer people say abortion is a critical issue today (15%) compared with 2006, when 28% described abortion as a critical issue facing the country.
There are, however, important political differences in these attitudes. The poll shows evidence of significant weakening in the level of concern about the abortion issue among liberal Democrats, while conservative Republicans appear more entrenched in their positions and less willing to compromise on this issue.
For example, there has been a 26-point drop since 2006 in the proportion of liberal Democrats who say abortion is a critical issue, from 34% to 8%. But among conservative Republicans, the decline has been much smaller (nine points, from 35% to 26%). Additionally, support for finding a middle ground on the abortion issue is down 12 points among conservative Republicans (44% now say the country needs to find a middle ground on the issue, compared with 56% in 2006), while liberal Democrats have not moved on this question. And the percentage of conservative Republicans who say they ever wonder whether their position is right has dropped 11 points (from 30% in 2006 to 19% now), while the figure among liberal Democrats has been relatively stable.
The timing of this shift in attitudes on abortion suggests it could be connected to Obama’s election. The decline in support for legal abortion first appeared in polls in the spring of 2009. Overall, roughly three-in-ten (29%) think Obama will handle the abortion issue about right as president. One-in-five Americans (19%) worry that Obama will go too far in supporting abortion rights, while very few (4%) express the opposite concern that Obama will not go far enough to support abortion rights. Concern about Obama’s handling of abortion is especially evident on the right; fully half of conservative Republicans (52%) worry that Obama will go too far in supporting abortion rights. However, nearly one-in-five political independents (18%) also worry that Obama will go too far in support of abortion rights.
The poll finds that four-in-ten Americans are unaware of Obama’s position on the abortion issue. Conservative Republicans, however, are more likely than any other group to know Obama’s position, with 75% correctly identifying him as “pro-choice” rather than “pro-life.”
In spite of the small shift toward opposition to legal abortion, the basic contours of the debate are still intact, with most major groups lining up on the same side of the issue as they have in the past. For example, most people who regularly attend religious services continue to come down in opposition to abortion, while the large majority of those who rarely or never attend religious services still support legal abortion.
The survey also reveals continued polarization over abortion. Even as the public expresses support for finding a middle ground, most Americans are quite certain that their own position on abortion is the right one, with only a quarter (26%) saying they ever wonder about their views on the issue. This is a slight decline since 2006, when 30% expressed doubts about their own view on abortion. Furthermore, many people on both sides of the issue say that the opposite point of view on abortion is not a “respectable” opinion for someone to hold. Nearly half of abortion opponents (47%), including 62% of those who say abortion should be illegal in all cases, say that a pro-choice view is not a respectable opinion for someone to hold. On the other side, 42% of abortion supporters (including 54% of those who want abortion to be legal in all cases) say the pro-life point of view is not respectable.
Broad-based Decline in Support for Legal Abortion
Recently, Americans have become more opposed to legal abortion. New analysis of combined Pew Research Center surveys conducted over the past three years shows that in 2007 and 2008, supporters of abortion rights clearly outnumbered opponents of abortion (those saying it should be illegal in most or all cases) by a 54%-40% margin. By contrast, in two major surveys conducted in 2009 among a total sample of more than 5,500 adults, views of abortion are about evenly divided, with 47% expressing support for legal abortion and 44% expressing opposition.
Republicans and Republican-leaning political independents have each become less pro-choice and more pro-life in recent polling. Democrats have also become less pro-choice, though by a somewhat smaller margin (four points less supportive of legal abortion). Democrats have not become more opposed to abortion; rather, they are now more likely to be undecided about the issue as compared with 2007/2008.
The 2009 polls find that gender differences now exist among Democrats. Among Democratic men, support for legal abortion has dropped nine percentage points from 2007/2008 to 2009 (62% to 53%) while support is unchanged among Democratic women (65% in 2007/2008 vs. 64% in 2009). This means that a significant gender gap over abortion now exists among Democrats, with Democratic women expressing more support for abortion rights than Democratic men (64% vs. 53%).
Among religious groups, observant white mainline Protestants and white Catholics (i.e., those who attend worship services at least weekly) each exhibit double-digit declines in support for legal abortion, as do Jews and less-observant white evangelical Protestants. By contrast, the views of black Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated have held steady.
Declines in support for legal abortion are seen among a wide variety of demographic groups. For example, both men and women currently express less support for legal abortion than they did in 2007/2008. Similarly, both whites and Hispanics have become significantly less pro-choice. But while whites have become significantly more pro-life, the movement among Hispanics has been primarily into the undecided camp.
The analysis also shows that some groups that once clearly preferred keeping abortion legal are now divided over whether it should be legal or not. For instance, Pew Research Center surveys from 2007/2008 found that men, whites, those age 30-49, those with some college education, political independents, observant white mainline Protestants, Catholics and Midwesterners all clearly favored keeping abortion legal in most or all cases. Now, each of these groups is closely divided on the issue.
Similarly, several groups that were previously divided in their views on abortion now come down clearly on the pro-life side. Among Hispanics, seniors, those with a high school education or less, Southerners and less-observant white evangelicals, abortion opponents now outnumber supporters of abortion rights.
Other Restrictions on Abortion
The latest (August 2009) Pew Research Center survey also finds that four-in-ten Americans (41%) now favor making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, up six points from 2007 (35%) and the highest level of support in Pew Research Center surveys for increased restrictions since 1987. However, those who favor making it more difficult to obtain an abortion are still outnumbered by those who oppose making it more difficult (50% vs. 41%).
Support for putting up barriers to abortion varies substantially across political and religious groups. Fully 65% of conservative Republicans want to make abortions harder to get, but just 39% of independents and 19% of liberal Democrats say the same. Almost two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants (64%) back greater restrictions on abortion, but fewer than half as many white mainline Protestants (27%) and the religiously unaffiliated (23%) say the same. Catholics fall in between, with 44% in support of more restrictions on abortion.
Those who attend worship services more often are also more apt to favor restrictions on abortion. A slight majority of those who attend church at least weekly (53%) favor more restrictions, compared with 37% of those who attend monthly or yearly and 28% of those who seldom or never attend.
When it comes to specific restrictions, Americans overwhelmingly support requiring women under age 18 to get the consent of at least one parent before having an abortion (76%), a figure that is largely unchanged in recent years. Large majorities of conservative Republicans (89%), white evangelicals (83%) and opponents of legal abortion (83%) express support for parental consent laws. But support for parental consent legislation is high even among those groups whose members are more supportive of abortion rights. For example, large majorities of the religiously unaffiliated (64%), mainline Protestants (77%) and Catholics (81%) favor requiring parental consent. Even among those who say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, 71% favor requiring parental consent.
Reducing the Number of Abortions
Apart from opinions on whether abortion should be legal, two-thirds of Americans (65%) say it would be good to reduce the number of abortions performed in the U.S., compared with 26% who say they don’t feel this way. Support for reducing abortions is up from 2005, when 59% said they would like to see fewer abortions.
Reducing abortions is popular among groups who are least supportive of legal abortion, including 73% of conservatives, 78% of white evangelical Protestants and 72% of those who attend weekly religious services. But even among groups that generally favor legal abortion, most also say it would be good to reduce the number of abortions. This includes 57% of Democrats, 55% of those unaffiliated with a religion, 59% of those who rarely or never attend worship services and 51% of those who say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases.
Liberals Less Engaged on Abortion Issue
Only a small minority of Americans (15%) say abortion is a critical issue facing the country today, down from 28% who said this in 2006. One-third says it is one important issue among many, while nearly half of the public (48%) says the issue of abortion is unimportant.
Analysis of the survey reveals that across all groups, relatively small numbers say that abortion is a critical issue. Yet there are also differences in the importance that different groups place on abortion.
Those who say abortion should be illegal are much more likely to see abortion as a critical issue (27%), or at least as one important issue among many (40%), with 30% expressing the view that abortion is not an important issue. By contrast, among those who say abortion should be legal, about two-thirds (65%) do not see abortion as an important issue, while only 6% see it as a critical issue.
Consistent with this, members of groups that are more opposed to abortion generally rate the abortion issue as more important than groups that support legal abortion. A quarter of conservative Republicans (26%) say it is a critical issue, compared to just 8% of liberal Democrats, 64% of whom say abortion is not an important issue.
Among religious groups, white evangelicals (and especially those who attend services more often) see the abortion issue critically important (29% overall, and 35% among high attenders) or as one important issue among many (42% each). White mainline Protestants and the unaffiliated, by contrast, are the least likely to say the issue is a critical one (7% each), and most likely to say the issue is not important (60% and 70%). There is also a wide discrepancy between Catholics who attend Mass weekly and those who do not; among the former, 21% say abortion is critical, compared with 4% among those who attend less often. Black Protestants are less likely than white evangelicals to say abortion is critical (17% vs. 29%), but more likely than white mainliners (7%). A plurality of black Protestants (42%) say abortion is not an important issue.
Declines in the perceived importance of the issue of abortion have been broad-based, but there are major political differences. In 2006, one third of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats alike rated abortion as a critical issue. Since then, the percentage of conservative Republicans who rate abortion as a critical issue has dropped nine points, to 26%. But the drop has been much sharper among liberal Democrats: only 8% now say the issue is critical, a decline of 26 percentage points.
Among white Catholics who attend Mass weekly (most of whom oppose abortion), one-in-five continue to rate abortion as a critical issue, which is essentially unchanged since 2006. By contrast, among white Catholics who attend Mass less regularly (most of whom support legal abortion), the figure has dropped from 20% to 4%, a decline of 16 percentage points. Similarly, among the unaffiliated, there has been a 19-point drop, from 28% to 7%.
Worship service attendance overall is also linked with the change in the perceived importance of the abortion issue. Those who attend least regularly are now 18 points less likely to rate abortion as a critical issue, compared with a six-point drop among those who attend weekly and a 13-point drop among those who attend monthly or yearly.
Most Are Confident About Own Position on Abortion
Two-thirds of Americans say they never wonder whether their position on abortion is right or not. One quarter say they do sometimes wonder, down slightly from 30% three years ago.
Opponents of legal abortion are most certain of their position, with 73% saying they never wonder whether their own view is correct. This is especially true of those who are most opposed to abortion; among those saying abortion should be illegal in all cases, nearly eight-in-ten are fully convinced of the correctness of their view. But most supporters of legal abortion are also firmly convinced that their position is right, with nearly two-thirds of abortion rights supporters overall (63%) and three-quarters of those who think abortion should be legal in all cases (73%) saying they never wonder about their own position.
A similar pattern is seen among other groups as well. Certainty about one’s position is high among all groups but is somewhat higher among the most pro-life groups, including conservative Republicans and evangelical Protestants, than among others.
Traditionally conservative groups also stand out for having become more certain in their views. Conservative Republicans are now 11 percentage points less likely to say they ever wonder about their stance on abortion than they were in 2006, while opinion among other political groups has not changed significantly.
A large decline in the number of people expressing doubts about their view on abortion is also evident among white evangelical Protestants, down from 32% to 20% (12 points). By contrast, the numbers of Catholics and white mainline Protestants expressing doubts about their abortion views are virtually unchanged. Similarly, those who attend services at least weekly are 11 points less likely than in 2006 to say they ever wonder about their position on abortion, while the certainty of those who attend less often has not moved significantly.
Half Respect Opposite View on Abortion
Americans who express a view on abortion are divided over whether the opposing view on abortion is a respectable opinion for someone to hold, with 47% saying the opposing view is respectable and 44% saying it is not. Half of those on the pro-choice side say they respect the view of those who think abortion should be illegal, slightly higher than the number who say they do not (42%). Among those on the pro-life side, 44% say that pro-choice views are respectable and 47% say they are not. Those with the most intense abortion opinions are least likely to express respect for the opposing view; among both those who say abortion should be legal in all cases and those who say it should be illegal in all cases, majorities say the opposing point of view on abortion is not respectable.
Young people tend to be more tolerant of opposing viewpoints on abortion than their older counterparts. More than half of those under age 30 (57%) say the opposite view from their own is respectable. Among those age 65 and older, the reverse is true; seniors are much more likely to say it is not respectable to hold the view opposite from their own (51% not respectable vs. 34% respectable).
Most conservative Republicans say that opinions on abortion that differ from their own are not respectable. By contrast, most independents say that the opposing view on abortion is respectable. In other political and ideological groups and in most religious groups, people are divided over whether it is respectable for someone to hold an abortion opinion different than their own. The notable exception to this rule is white evangelical Protestants, among whom 53% say the opposing view is not respectable, while 37% say it is.
Those whose position on abortion goes against the grain of their party or religion are more respectful of views different from their own. For example, pro-choice Republicans are much more likely to say the opposing viewpoint is respectable (58%) than are pro-life Republicans (34%). And among pro-life Democrats, more say the opposing view is respectable than among pro-choice Democrats (55% vs. 44%).
A similar pattern exists with regard to religion: 52% of pro-choice evangelical Protestants express respect for the opposing view, compared with 32% of pro-life evangelicals. And among those who attend services weekly or more, those in the pro-choice camp are more likely to respect their opponents than those in the pro-life camp (49% vs. 37%).
Most Want Middle Ground on Abortion
Though support for legal abortion has slipped and sizeable numbers of the public lack respect for opposing views on abortion, most Americans remain committed to the idea that the nation should find a way to compromise on abortion issues. Six-in-ten say the country needs to find a middle ground on abortion, down slightly since 2006 when 66% expressed this view. Roughly three-in-ten (29%) say there is no room for compromise on the abortion issue, the same proportion as three years ago.
Supporters of legal abortion are especially likely to say the country needs to find a middle ground (72%), while those who say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases are more divided on the issue, with 48% advocating a middle ground and 44% saying there is no room for compromise.
Groups traditionally opposed to legal abortion are also most wary of the idea of compromise. Among conservative Republicans, a 48% plurality says there is no room for compromise, with 44% saying the nation should find a middle ground. By contrast, a strong majority of moderate or liberal Republicans (71%) say the country should find a middle ground, while 20% say there is no room for compromise. In this regard, they resemble liberal Democrats, among whom 71% support finding middle ground.
Similarly, white evangelical Protestants – especially those who attend church on a weekly basis – stand out for saying there is no room for compromise on abortion (59% for weekly attenders vs. 49% of white evangelicals overall). Majorities of other religious groups, however, favor seeking a middle ground on abortion, including white mainline Protestants (68%) and Catholics (67%). Among these groups, regular attendance at church services is also related to less support for a middle ground; but even among weekly attenders in these groups, majorities still favor finding a middle ground.
The decline over time on support for a middle ground also reflects these divisions. Support for finding a middle ground is down 12 points among conservative Republicans, while liberal Democrats have not changed their views on this question.
Among white evangelical Protestants, support for finding a middle ground on abortion has declined from 61% in 2006 to 40% today, a drop of 21 percentage points. Catholics are just as supportive of seeking a middle ground today as in 2006 (67% now vs. 63% in 2006).
Among those who attend religious services at least weekly, support for finding a middle ground has dropped 12 percentage points since 2006 (from 60% to 48%). By contrast, among those who attend services less often, opinion on this question has been more stable.
Obama and the Abortion Issue
Nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) correctly describe Obama’s position on abortion as pro-choice, while a sizeable minority either believe he is pro-life (14%) or say they don’t know the president’s position (28%). Nearly four-in-ten (38%) say that Obama thinks it would be good t
o reduce the number of abortions, while 44% say they do not know if Obama thinks it would be good to reduce the number of abortions and 19% say he does not think it would be good to reduce abortions.
More Republicans (71%) than Democrats (54%) or independents (58%) know that Obama is pro-choice. However, on the question of whether or not Obama wants to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S., more Democrats than Republicans say he believes this is a good thing (46% vs. 27%, respectively). Among both groups, as many as four-in-ten say they do not know what Obama thinks about reducing the number of abortions.
Majorities of all age groups know that Obama is pro-choice, although older Americans (those age 65 and older) are slightly less knowledgeable than those age 30-64. People under age 30 are significantly more likely than those over age 50 to say that Obama favors reducing the number of abortions: 51% of those under age 30 say this, compared with 29% of those age 50 and older.
Among religious groups, roughly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants (69%) and white Catholics (65%) know that Obama is pro-choice, compared with 58% of white mainline Protestants and 53% of the religiously unaffiliated. On the question of whether or not Obama wants to reduce the number of abortions in this country, roughly half of the religiously unaffiliated (47%) say that Obama favors reducing the number of abortions, while white evangelicals are much more skeptical (29% say he holds this view).
Among people who know that Obama is pro-choice, a plurality (29% of the public overall) think that he will handle the issue about right. About one-in-five (19%) worry that Obama will go too far in supporting abortion rights, while very few (4%) worry that he will not go far enough in supporting abortion rights.
There are stark differences of opinion along political and ideological lines as to how Obama will handle the issue of abortion as president. A majority of conservative Republicans (52%) say that Obama will go too far in supporting abortion rights, while just 10% think he will handle the issue about right. By contrast, a majority of liberal Democrats (55%) think he will handle the issue about right and just 4% say he will go too far. The views of independents mirror those of the public overall; three-in-ten independents (29%) think that Obama will strike the right balance and 18% think he will go too far in supporting abortion rights.
Not unexpectedly, those who believe that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases are more worried that Obama may go too far in supporting abortion rights than are Americans who believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases. One-third of abortion opponents (34%) worry that Obama will go too far in supporting abortion rights, while a plurality of supporters of legal abortion (45%) say Obama will handle the issue about right.
Among religious groups, white evangelicals are more concerned that Obama will take abortion rights too far than are other groups. Four-in-ten white evangelicals say that Obama will overreach on abortion rights, while just 19% of Catholics and 14% of white mainline Protestants agree.
Religious and Moral Influence on the Debate
One-third of Americans (32%) say their religious beliefs are the primary influence on their attitudes toward abortion. Roughly one-in-five cite their education (21%), and one-in-seven point to their personal experience (14%). Fewer say the views of their family and friends (6%) or what they have seen or read in the media (5%) are the main influences on their opinion about abortion, but a sizable proportion (21%) say there is something else that most informs their view.
Religious beliefs hold much stronger sway over those who oppose abortion than over those on the pro-choice side of the abortion issue. More than half of those who say abortion should be illegal (53%) cite religious beliefs as the primary influence on their views, compared with only 11% among supporters of legal abortion. Instead of religion, supporters of legal abortion are much more likely to cite their education (30%) or a personal experience (20%) as the primary influence on their views on abortion.
Women are more apt than men to say that their religious beliefs have the most influence on their views about abortion (36% vs. 28%), and Americans 65 and older are much more likely than young adults to say this (44% among those 65 and older vs. 25% among those under age 30).
Among political groups, 53% of conservative Republicans say their attitudes are based primarily on their religious beliefs, compared with just 22% of moderate or liberal Republicans. More than a third of conservative or moderate Democrats (36%) and 17% of liberal Democrats single out the influence of their religious beliefs.
A majority of white evangelical Protestants (58%) say their religious beliefs drive their views on abortion. This figure approaches seven-in-ten (68%) among white evangelicals who attend services at least weekly. Mainline Protestants are much less likely to cite their religious beliefs (22%), but there is still a strong divide between white mainline Protestants who attend church at least weekly (41%) and those who attend less often (14%). White, non-Hispanic Catholics are similarly divided on the issue, with 60% of those who attend weekly services saying their religious beliefs are the main influence on their abortion views, compared with just 19% of those who attend less regularly. More than one-quarter of religiously unaffiliated Americans (28%) rely most on their education in formulating their opinion on abortion.
Half Say Abortion is Morally Wrong
A slight majority of Americans (52%) say having an abortion is morally wrong. One quarter says it is not a moral issue, and just 10% say it is morally acceptable. (The remaining 12% say that the morality of abortion depends on the situation or refuse to express an opinion.)
There is a strong connection between views on whether abortion should be legal and views on the morality of having an abortion. Most opponents of legal abortion (80%) say having an abortion is morally wrong. Most supporters of legal abortion, on the other hand, say abortion is morally acceptable (18%) or that it is not a moral issue (42%). But more than a quarter of those who say abortion should be legal (28%) say it is morally wrong to have an abortion.
Consistent with this, the most pro-life groups more often say that abortion is morally wrong. Three-quarters of conservative Republicans say this, as do slight majorities of moderate or liberal Republicans (51%) and conservative or moderate Democrats (55%). Nearly a third of liberal Democrats (31%) say abortion is morally wrong, with 40% saying it is not a moral issue.
White evangelical Protestants are very likely to say abortion is morally wrong (74%). Majorities of black Protestants (58%) and Catholics (58%) also say this. Fewer than half of white mainline Protestants (40%) say that abortion is morally wrong. Among the unaffiliated, 30% say having an abortion is morally wrong, but 43% say it is not a moral issue. Attendance at worship services also plays a role, with those who attend most frequently being twice as likely as those who attend least often to say abortion is morally wrong (67% vs. 35%).
Influence of Religious and Moral Beliefs
Religious beliefs, when cited as the main source of thinking on abortion, are much more likely to influence adherents in a pro-life direction than in a pro-choice direc
tion. Among those who say their religious beliefs have the most influence on their thinking about abortion, an overwhelming majority (82%) say abortion should be illegal. Less than one-in-five (18%) say it should be legal.
The opposite is true, however, among those who cite education or personal experience as their main influence. Strong majorities of these groups identify with a pro-choice viewpoint (72% among those saying education, 70% among those saying personal experience).
A similar though less-pronounced pattern is seen on the question of whether the country should find a middle ground on abortion. Those who cite religious beliefs as the primary influence on their abortion views and those who say abortion is morally wrong are considerably more likely than others to say that there is no room for compromise on the issue of abortion.