The Times Poll : Most Americans Think Abortion Is Immoral

Times Staff Writer

Most Americans personally consider abortion to be immoral--in fact, “murder.” But they also believe deeply that each woman should be allowed to decide for herself whether to have an abortion, a nationwide survey by the Times Poll has found.

Abortion clearly is an issue that tugs at the conscience and stirs up conflicting feelings about right and wrong and the practicalities of living in a complex society, the poll showed.

On the one hand, Americans adamantly object to abortion if its only purpose is birth control. Nor do they support it as a way to avoid marriage. And they oppose it “on demand,” as a mere convenience.


See Justification

On the other hand, practically everybody agrees that abortion is justified when the mother’s life is in danger or if the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest. To a lesser extent, but still overwhelmingly, people also support abortion if the baby is likely to have a serious birth defect.

Americans tend to support the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe vs. Wade that legalized abortion--a decision that has been under attack all through the 1980s by the Ronald Reagan Administration and now the Bush Administration. The high court plans to hear a Missouri case challenging Roe vs. Wade on April 26 and to rule by midsummer, and there has been speculation that it could substantially alter or even overturn that decision.

Public support for the 16-year-old court decision is only lukewarm, but people overwhelmingly oppose amending the Constitution to outlaw abortions, as advocated aggressively by “pro-life” groups.

In fact, the survey provides evidence that the years-long, constant agitation by factions on both sides of the issue--anti-abortion or “pro-life” and pro-abortion or “pro-choice” groups--has had little impact on public opinion. It indicates that American opinions on abortion today are about the same as they were a decade ago, according to Times Poll Director I. A. Lewis.

Politically, most people do not vote for a candidate simply because of a position on abortion, the survey showed. But a significant number--a third of those interviewed--asserted that they indeed would switch their vote away from a politician who took “the wrong stand.” Most of these people generally oppose abortion, an indication that opponents feel more strongly about the subject than do supporters.

The Times poll, in one of the largest and most substantive surveys ever conducted on the emotional issue of abortion, interviewed 3,583 American adults by telephone March 3-10. The margin of error for a survey of this size is 3 percentage points in either direction.


The survey included a national cross section sample of 2,406 people, plus an additional 1,177 women. The “oversample” of women was added because of abortion’s special significance to them and in order to provide greater statistical precision to their opinions. But their answers were “weighted” so that, overall, they properly fit into a normal percentage mix of men and women.

Eight percent of the women interviewed acknowledged having had an abortion themselves--some of them more than once.

“Nobody really knows what proportion of women in the United States actually have had an abortion,” pollster Lewis said. “We have to assume that 8% is a minimum figure. A fifth of the women we interviewed who admitted they have had an abortion said they had never before told anyone about it. There must be many more who are still unwilling to discuss the subject.”

Contrasted with the widespread perception that abortion clients come from the low end of the socioeconomic ladder, women who told the Times poll that they had aborted a fetus tended to be better educated, working full time, earning good salaries and generally representative of every racial and ethnic group. They also tended to be either childless or the parent of just one child, single, a baby boomer and living in metropolitan areas. Religion is not very important in their lives.

Necessary Evil

Americans generally find abortion to be morally repugnant, the poll showed. But they also see it often as a necessary evil, a last resort for desperate people.

Among those interviewed, 61% said they believe abortion to be “morally wrong.” Just 22% said it is “morally right.” Even women who have had an abortion are divided on the moral question, with 37% considering it to be “wrong,” 39% “right” and 24% not sure.


Indeed, a large majority--57%--think “abortion is murder,” the poll found. Only 35% disagree. It even is considered “murder” by a third of the women who have had an abortion and a fourth of the people who generally favor it.

Key Question

But the key to understanding the overriding attitude of Americans toward abortion can be found in their answers to this question: “Do you agree or disagree with this statement? ‘I personally feel that abortion is morally wrong, but I also feel that whether or not to have an abortion is a decision that has to be made by every woman for herself.’ ” Seventy-four percent agreed and only 21% disagreed, with 5% not sure.

Even two-thirds of the people who said they generally oppose abortion agreed that each woman should be allowed to choose for herself whether to have one.

Unlike most of the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” activists who attract media attention, relatively few Americans approve--or disapprove--of abortion carte blanche under any circumstances. They have a range of standards.

In order of priority, for example, people favor abortion “when a woman’s health is seriously endangered” (88%-6%), “if a woman became pregnant as the result of rape or incest” (84%-10%) and “if there is a strong chance of serious defect in the baby” (74%-17%).

Less Compelling

But they begin to oppose abortion as the reasons become less compelling, such as “if the family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children” (41% for, 49% against), “if an unmarried woman who is pregnant does not want to marry the man” (40%-51%), “if she is married and does not want any more children” (36%-54%) and “when it is used as a form of birth control” (13%-80%).


People reject the general notion that a woman “should be able to get an abortion no matter what the reason” (34%-57%).

In fact, the respondents said that “generally speaking” they do not favor abortion (34% for, 40% against, 26% not sure). And even people who do favor abortion overwhelmingly oppose its use for birth control.

Yet, by 46% to 35%, people tend to support the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision, which struck down all state laws making abortion a crime and declared that the Constitution guarantees women the right to end early pregnancies--those in the first trimester--free from government interference. “Every woman has the right to control her own body,” a majority of those interviewed by The Times agreed (51%-44%).

People are strongly opposed to any constitutional amendment that would outlaw abortions (28% for, 62% against). And they also oppose going back to the pre-1973 system of “permitting each state to decide whether abortions are legal” (34% for, 50% against).

The survey showed that people on the high end of the socioeconomic scale are dramatically more sympathetic toward abortion than those on the low end. For example, 45% of the people who went to college generally favor abortion, while only 25% of high school dropouts do. Likewise, 42% of people earning more than $40,000 a year favor abortion, but just 24% of those who take in less than $20,000 do.

For many, the practical, everyday burdens of giving birth and raising a child greatly influence their attitude toward abortion. For example, people who are self-employed, working full time or looking for a job are significantly more supportive of abortion than are homemakers or retired persons.


People in this survey were about evenly divided between those who think “motherhood must always be a woman’s most important and satisfying role” and others who feel “motherhood can sometimes keep a woman from fulfilling her true potential in life.”

The majority of people who support abortion think that raising children can hold back a woman in her career. But the majority of those who oppose abortion believe that motherhood should be the most important, satisfying thing a woman does.

Only roughly one-fourth of blacks and Latinos favor abortion, but more than a third of Anglos do.

Surprisingly, however, there are no significant differences in abortion views between men and women, young and old and Republicans and Democrats, the poll found.

By religion, Jews solidly support abortion. But Christians--particularly Roman Catholics--do not. People who say religion is “very important” in their lives oppose abortion by more than 2 to 1.

Geographically, people along the Pacific Coast and in New England favor abortion more than other Americans. People in the Deep South and Midwest are more opposed than others.


Divorced and separated people tend to support abortion. But single people who never have been married, and those who had split from their first spouse and remarried somebody else, are divided on the issue. People in their first marriages tend to oppose abortion.

Also, people who favor abortion tend to be much less certain of their views than those who oppose it.

The public does not want to use tax funds to pay for abortions of poor people, the survey showed (38% for, 52% against). There is a wide difference of opinion between people who favor abortion (64% for using tax dollars) and those who oppose it (15% for).

But roughly two-thirds of all people--abortion supporters and opponents alike--believe that the responsibility for financing the termination of a pregnancy should rest with one or both of the parents.

More than two-thirds of those interviewed said “the government should make contraceptives more widely available.” Even 71% of Roman Catholics, whose religion officially forbids use of artificial contraception, believe it ought to be more readily available.

However, 56% of the people in this survey reported that they use no contraceptives. Actually, Catholics reported using them slightly more than Protestants or Jews.


There is a tendency to feel that “legal abortions have encouraged people to become sexually promiscuous” (48% agree, 43% disagree).

People believe overwhelmingly that “minors should have to get their parents’ permission before having an abortion” (81%-14%). However, the survey offered a good illustration of why most pregnant minors do not seek their parents’ permission. When asked if they had a pregnant daughter whether they would “help her get the abortion or oppose it,” only a third replied “help” and half answered “oppose.”

A majority of people think any woman seeking an abortion should be required “to get the consent of the natural father” (53%-37%). Women think this less than men, but they tend to agree.

Finally, people had poor impressions of leaders of both the pro-abortion and anti-abortion movements (only 26% and 24% favorable, respectively).

High-profile women tell of life before abortion became legal. Story in Part II, Page 5.

WHO THEY ARE People Who Favor Abortion:

- Have generally liberal views on “family values.” They favor changing women’s status in society and do not feel that a woman’s place is in the home. They think motherhood can sometimes be a burden. They support homosexual rights.

- Tend to have fewer children; more often than not they are separated, remarried or have been divorced.


- Consider religion less important in their lives and tend to be Jewish or to attend religious services only occasionally.

- Politically identify themselves as more liberal and in party affiliation split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

- Tend to earn more than $30,000 per year, be middle-aged, live in a central city or suburb in New England, the Mid-Atlantic or the Pacific states. More likely than not a female wage earner contributes more than 40% of the family income.

People Who Oppose Abortion:

- Feel the country is in a state of moral decline and hold conservative views on “family values.” To them, a woman’s place is in the home and motherhood must always be a woman’s most important and satisfying role.

- Have more children than average (four or more) and tend not to use contraception.

- Consider religion very important in their lives and regularly or frequently attend services. They are most often Latino and Roman Catholic or hold fundamentalist Pentecostal religious views.

- Are either conservative or tend to pay little attention to politics.

- Generally either own their own businesses or hold service-related positions, earning less than $20,000 per year. They tend to live in smaller cities or in rural areas of the Midwest and Deep South.


COMPLEX FEELINGS Do you favor or oppose? Abortion when a woman’s life is endangered Favor:88% Oppose:6% Abortion if a pregnancy results from rape or incest Favor:84% Oppose:10% Abortion if there is a serious birth defect Favor:74% Oppose: 17% Abortion when the family has a low income and cannot afford any more children Favor:41% Oppose: 49% Abortion when the unmarried woman does not want to marry the natural father Favor:40% Oppose: 51% Using public funds for abortions Favor:38% Oppose: 52% Abortion when a married woman does not want any more children Favor:36% Oppose: 54% Abortion, no matter what reason Favor:34% Oppose: 57% Abortion as a form of birth control Favor:13% Oppose: 80% Abortion in general Favor:34% Oppose: 40% THE POLITICS OF ABORTION At present, it does not appear that the Bush Administration will suffer if the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade. The Bush Administration has asked the Supreme Court to strike down its Roe versus Wade decision which essentially supports abortion. If the Court complies, will that make you more or less likely to support the Bush Administration? More likely: 15% Less likely: 19% Have no effect: 60% Don’t Know: 6% Part of the reason is that voters who favor abortion won’t switch their vote on account of the abortion issue. But those who oppose abortion might. Some people say they would vote against a political candidate if he or she took what they considered to be the wrong stand on abortion. How about you? Is the abortion issue so important to you that you would switch your vote from your original choice and vote for somebody else because you disagreed on abortion, or not?

FAVOR OPPOSE NO ALL ABORTION ABORTION OPINION RESPONDENTS Switch 30% 46% 12% 32% Not switch 65% 44% 77% 59% Don’t Know 5% 10% 11% 9%

Actually, abortion is not a partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats, for once, see eye to eye. Party Affiliation

ALL DEMOCRAT INDEPENDENT REPUBLICAN RESPONDENTS Favor 36% 31% 37% 34% Oppose 39% 41% 41% 40% No Opinion 25% 28% 22% 26%