April 23, 2004

Abortion a More Powerful Issue for Women

Public divisions over access to abortion are long-standing, and have changed only slightly over the past two decades. Currently, 58% say they oppose making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, while 36% are in favor of further restrictions. This is virtually unchanged from polling conducted in the early 1990s. In 1987, polling found somewhat less opposition to increasing constraints on abortion (51% opposed, 41% favored), but it is unclear whether this shift reflects changes in public opinion on the issue, or the fact that public policy has shifted since 1987, including greater restrictions on abortion access in many states.

While the debate over abortion divides both men and women, women express significantly stronger feelings about the issue, and much more often say this issue could be a factor in their vote. An analysis of recent Pew Research Center surveys finds that 33% of women say they strongly oppose more restrictions on abortion, compared with 26% of men.

On the other side of the issue, 19% of women strongly favor greater restrictions, compared with 15% of men. Taken together, the majority of women (52% overall) feel strongly about the issue one way or the other, while only 41% of men say the same.

Overall, people who favor further restrictions on abortion are somewhat more likely than those who oppose it to say it is an issue that shapes their voting. As many as 41% of people who want greater limits on abortion say they would not vote for a candidate who disagrees with their position, even if they agreed with the candidate on most other issues. This compares with 35% of those opposed to further restricting abortion.

Women’s greater concern about abortion is also seen in the extent to which they see it as a voting issue. On the pro-life side of the issue, a plurality of women favoring more abortion restrictions (45%) say they would not vote for a candidate who disagrees with them on this issue. This is significantly higher than among pro-life men (37%). The gender gap is somewhat larger on the other side of the issue, where 40% of women and just 30% of men who oppose further limits on abortion say they would decide their vote largely on this issue. Overall, men who oppose more abortion restrictions are the least likely to view this as a voting issue. Nearly six-in-ten men who oppose further abortion restrictions (59%) say they would vote for a candidate who disagrees with them on this matter, if they shared views on most other issues.

No Age Gap on Abortion

Unlike the issue of gay marriage, on which young and old take starkly different positions, there is very little difference of opinion between young and old with respect to abortion. In all age ranges, there is majority opposition to making it more difficult for a woman to have an abortion. People in the youngest age group, those age 18-24, are at least as conservative on this issue as are their elders.

The absence of a generational or life-cycle gap on abortion attitudes reflects a change from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when older Americans were more supportive of abortion restrictions than were younger people. In 1987, majorities in every age group between 18 and 59 opposed making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, but those age 60 and older favored further restrictions by a 48% to 42% margin. Today, by comparison, older Americans are no different from the national average on this issue.

There is a sizable gender gap in abortion attitudes among the youngest generation of Americans. Women age 18-24 oppose further limits on abortion access by a wide margin (63%-34%). But young men are divided over the issue: 50% oppose more abortion restrictions, while 45% are in favor. In this regard, this youngest group of men stand apart not only from women within their cohort, but also from men age 25 and older. Aside from this gap between men and women under age 25, there are virtually no gender gaps in overall abortion attitudes among older cohorts.

Religion and Abortion

As has been the case for the past two decades, white evangelical Protestants have the strongest pro-life viewpoint.1 A majority of white evangelicals (56%) say they favor making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, while majorities of all other major religious groups oppose further restrictions on abortion. By comparison, white mainline Protestants and black Protestants oppose restrictions on abortion by roughly two-to-one.

Despite the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion, Catholics are no different from the general public in their views on this issue. Overall, 56% of non-Hispanic Catholics, and 59% of Hispanic Catholics, say they oppose making it harder for a woman to get an abortion. However, there is a substantial difference among Catholics, depending on the frequency of church attendance. Half of white Catholics who attend church at least once a week favor further restrictions on abortions, compared with only about a quarter of those who attend church less frequently (50% vs. 26%).

Religion and Generations

Younger Protestants, especially evangelical Protestants, support increased restrictions on abortion at higher rates than their elders. Among Catholics, however, older generations are more in favor of limiting abortions than are younger people.

Among both white evangelical and mainline Protestants, pro-life sentiment is strongest among the very young. Fully 71% of white evangelicals under age 25 favor further restrictions on abortion, compared with just 44% of white evangelicals age 65 and over. A similar pattern exists among non-evangelical Protestants. While there is more opposition than support among all age groups of mainline Protestants, 44% of those under age 25 say they would favor making it more difficult to get an abortion. Just 22% of those age 65 and older agree.

This pattern is reversed among Catholics. Those under age 65 tend to oppose increasing restrictions on abortion by roughly two-to one. But Catholics age 65 and older favor increased restrictions by a 50% to 38% margin.

  1. Evangelical Protestants are those who describe themselves as “born again or evangelical”. Mainline Protestants are those who say this description does not apply to them.