Since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, pollsters have asked hundreds of questions about abortion. This AEI Public Opinion Study brings many of these questions together in one place. It updates earlier AEI studies on the subject, and it focuses on trends.
Opinion has moved within a narrow range in the nearly 50 years since Roe was decided. Between 1975 and 2021, Gallup has asked the identical three-part question on the legality of abortion more than 55 times. Opinion bulks in the middle, with 54 percent saying abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances in 1975 and 48 percent giving that response in its latest poll from May 2021. Of the remainder, 21 percent in 1975 and 32 percent in 2021 said it should be legal under all circumstances. Twenty-two percent said it should be illegal in all circumstances in 1975; 19 percent gave that response in Gallup’s 2021 question.
Several organizations ask a four-part question. In a 2004 Quinnipiac University poll, 20 percent said abortion should be legal in all cases, 35 percent legal in most cases, 26 percent illegal in most cases, and 14 percent illegal in all. In its early September 2021 poll, taken after the Supreme Court denied an emergency request to block the Texas fetal heartbeat law, those responses were 31, 31, 21, and 11 percent, respectively. The other organizations that ask this identical four-part question find that support for legal abortion in all cases has risen slightly, while the view that it should be illegal in all cases has dropped slightly.
Opinion about abortion is complex. Americans appear to be simultaneously pro-life and pro-choice. Significant numbers of people say abortion is an act of murder. They also say that the decision to have an abortion should be a personal choice. These are contradictory sentiments, yet many people hold them at the same time. Many see no reason to resolve the tensions in these positions. They believe in the sanctity of life and the importance of individual choice.
Most Americans do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. They are, however, willing to put some restrictions on abortion’s use. Although the questions are not asked regularly, majorities of Americans favor notification of partners, parental consent for a teenager seeking an abortion, and 24-hour waiting periods. They say abortion should be generally legal in the first trimester but oppose it in the second and third trimesters. These opinions regarding restrictions highlight the nuanced nature of American public opinion on abortion.