Americans Narrowing Support for Abortion

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More than a quarter-century after the Supreme Court established a constitutional right to abortion, overall support for the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision seems to be softening as Americans adopt a more nuanced view of the circumstances under which abortions should be allowed, according to a new Los Angeles Times Poll.

Despite the increasing level of discomfort with the high court’s ruling--43% of current survey respondents express support for Roe, compared with 56% in 1991--the poll shows continued opposition to a constitutional ban on abortion.

Individual opinions about abortion are rife with ambivalence, the poll suggests. Many respondents express positions that on their surface appear to contradict each other but, upon exploration, reveal two strong but competing sets of feelings.


“Americans, in terms of their own code of morality, may view abortion as murder and may be comfortable with it being illegal, but most Americans don’t want to impose that on other people,” said Susan Carroll, a senior research associate who studies abortion at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “It’s kind of a live-and-let-live approach. . . . Most Americans are in favor of letting people make their own individual choices.”

More than half of those surveyed say abortion should either be illegal in all circumstances or legal only in cases of rape, incest or when a woman’s life is in danger. At the same time, more than two-thirds say that, regardless of their own feelings on the subject, the highly personal decision to obtain an abortion should be left to a woman and her doctor.

Even more striking, while 57% of respondents say they consider abortion to be murder, more than half of that group agree that a woman should have the right to choose an abortion.

These conflicting perspectives make abortion a particularly tricky issue for politicians. President Clinton attempted to straddle the ambivalence in his first presidential campaign by saying he wanted abortions to be “safe, legal and rare.” So far, neither Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush nor Democratic rival Al Gore have found a similarly deft formulation.

The issue could help--or hurt--both men. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they have no clear sense of either candidate’s position on the issue at this point in the presidential race. But 34% of poll respondents say that if they learn that a candidate’s position on abortion disagrees with their own, it would be enough to change their vote.

The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 2,071 Americans from June 8 through Tuesday. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 2 percentage points.


Sentiment Varies on When and Why

Bush’s opposition to abortion appeared more likely to help his candidacy than Gore’s support of abortion rights will help his. When told that Bush opposes abortion, 27% of respondents say that makes them more likely to vote for him. But only 18% of respondents say Gore’s support for legal abortion would make them more likely to vote for him.

Still, there may be risks in emphasizing a stand against abortion, some experts say. If a candidate strongly opposes legal abortion, that could mobilize opposition among sizable groups of voters, such as suburban women and college students.

“The country leans [toward] limited pro-choice,” said Bob Blendon, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health who tracks views on health care issues.

Public sentiment varies considerably based on when and why a woman chooses to obtain an abortion, the poll shows.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents say abortions should be illegal after the first three months of pregnancy. While 85% support abortion when a woman’s physical health is at risk, the level of support drops to 54% when only her emotional health is at stake. And 66% say they support abortion when the fetus is at risk of an abnormality.

The poll shows growing support for RU-486, the “abortion pill” that was developed in France and can be used during the first eight weeks of pregnancy. Americans are almost evenly divided between those who favor making it widely available (43%) and those who oppose doing so (46%). When the question was first asked 11 years ago, 32% approved of making the drug available.


Overall public support for a woman’s right to choose has remained relatively steady over time. But with abortion rights constitutionally protected by Roe vs. Wade, Americans appear to feel increasingly comfortable considering limitations on its availability. Indeed, in some cases, they now appear to favor more restrictions.

One reason cited for the softening of support for Roe is that a proportionately smaller number of Americans remembers the days when abortion was an illegal, clandestine procedure.

“It seems like a long time ago that it was illegal,” said Bob Pelletier, a 49-year-old auto technician who participated in The Times Poll. “I remember way back a doctor doing it with coat hangers. That was scary. But after years and years and over time, the worry dissipates and people forget.”

In recent years, Roe has been invoked by abortion opponents as a barrier to imposing limits on abortion, said Harvard’s Blendon. As a result, increasing numbers of Americans may view Roe as an obstacle to adopting restrictions for which there is broad support.

(In fact, the Supreme Court has permitted numerous restrictions on the procedure, such as requiring teenagers to involve their parents in the decision and requiring women to wait 24 hours before obtaining an abortion.)

Typically when abortion rights are threatened, support for legal abortion rises, according to polling experts.


In the last decade, for example, previous polls show support for Roe peaking at 56% around 1991, when the decision was under attack across the country. Most states had pushed measures through their legislatures that either put strict limits on abortion or even banned it altogether.

In 1992, the Supreme Court issued a decision upholding Roe, with some modifications. The same year, Clinton, an abortion rights supporter, was elected president. Both events appeared to reassure people there would be no dramatic changes in abortion policy. Subsequently, support for Roe began to decline.

In a 1996 poll, 46% of respondents endorsed Roe vs. Wade. By 1999, support had slipped slightly to 43%, the same level as in the current poll.

“The anti-abortion movement has changed their tactics and made significant inroads in changing people’s opinions about abortion,” said poll director Pinkus.

“Instead of asking for drastic measures, the pro-life movement knows that the only way to diminish support for abortions is to push for incremental legislation.”

Supreme Court to Rule on ‘Partial-Birth’ Ban

Abortion opponents have worked hard for passage of such restrictions as requiring teenagers to involve a parent in the abortion decision and for bans on so-called partial-birth abortions. The latter issue has focused public attention on abortions performed after the first trimester of pregnancy.


The Supreme Court is poised to rule on the constitutionality of Nebraska’s ban on “partial-birth” abortions by the end of the month. Nearly identical bans are in place in nearly 30 states. The ruling will be the court’s first major decision on abortion in eight years and could significantly reduce women’s access to abortion after the first trimester.

In The Times Poll, 65% of respondents said abortions in the second trimester should not be legal. Female respondents feel more strongly about the issue: 72% believe second-trimester abortions should be illegal, compared with 58% of men.

The poll shows that while more than four out of five respondents support abortion when a woman’s physical health is at risk, just slightly more than half feel the same when it is a matter of a woman’s emotional health. Support for abortions to protect a woman’s mental health is strongest among single women, 64% of whom believe it should be allowed.

That distinction reflects a growing public debate over acceptable reasons for abortion. Some politicians believe women should not be permitted to obtain abortions, especially later in pregnancy, for emotional health reasons.

Roe vs. Wade allows states to restrict access in the third trimester as long as women are permitted to have an abortion when their life or health is at stake. Health has been defined by the courts to cover both emotional and physical health.

The findings appear to reflect a broader discomfort with issues involving mental illness. “People are very ambivalent about emotional health altogether,” said Nancy Adler, a professor of medical psychology at UC San Francisco. “People would rather have a physical illness than be told it was something in their mind.”


For many people, thinking about abortion gives rise to conflicting feelings. One of them is Vicky R., a medical sales agent in Florida who asked that her full name not be used. She is among those respondents who consider abortion a form of murder but also believe it is a personal decision best left to a woman and her doctor.

“I don’t think I personally would have an abortion. But . . . I don’t know that it’s fair to make someone go through that--an unwanted pregnancy,” she said. Still, the issue troubles her. “Probably almost nobody feels abortion is a good thing. I just feel it’s a personal choice with a lot of gray areas.”