Support for legal abortion rises, 40 years after Roe vs. Wade

<i>This article has been updated. See below for details.</i>

Forty years after the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision struck down laws forbidding abortions, support for a legal right to end a pregnancy has grown, according to new polls released this week.

The shift has come largely from increased support for legal abortion among Latinos and blacks, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal survey. The survey for the first time found a majority of Americans supporting legal abortion in all or most cases.

The shift among African Americans and Latinos could indicate that both population groups, which have strongly supported the Democratic Party in recent years, have begun taking on the party’s views on social issues.

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The survey showed 31% of Americans saying abortion should always be legal and an additional 23% saying they should be “legal most of the time.” The combined 54% support for legal abortion in most cases has moved upward from 44% a decade ago and 49% five years ago.

On the other side, 9% said abortions should be illegal without exceptions and 35% said they should be illegal, but with some exceptions.


By 70%-24% those surveyed said they would oppose overturning the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, with 57% saying they “feel strongly” that it should not be overturned. Five years ago, 65% said they opposed overturning the decision.

The shifts in public opinion might not appear huge, but they “are profound changes,” Republican pollster Bill McInturff, whose firm conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, told NBC.

Although a majority support abortion rights, those in opposition more often consider the issue a top priority, according to a separate survey by the Pew Research Center.

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According to the Pew survey, more than twice as many people support keeping Roe vs. Wade in place as want it overturned. Among those who want it overturned, 38% said they consider the issue “critical.” An additional 36% see abortion as one of many important issues facing the country and 25% see the issue as not that important.

Among the majority who favor keeping Roe vs. Wade in place, only 9% see the issue as critical, 22% see abortion as one of many important issues and 68% see it as not that important. Political strategists say that voters who support abortion rights often put a low priority on the issue because, after 40 years, they take legalized abortion for granted.

[Update, 2:27 p.m. Jan. 22: A third survey, by Gallup, shows a more gradual increase in support for abortion rights. Gallup’s latest numbers show 52% of Americans think abortion should be “legal only under certain circumstances,” a number that has held fairly steady for the past decade in their surveys. The percentage saying abortion should be “legal under any circumstance” has risen to 28% from about 20% five years ago. The percentage saying abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances” has declined slightly and now stands at 18%.

Support for abortion rights drops significantly for abortions after the first trimester, when 61% of Americans think they should be legal, Gallup found. Only 27% said they should be legal in the second trimester and only 14% support legal abortions in the final three months of a pregnancy. Almost 90% of abortions in the U.S. take place in the first trimester.]

A large percentage of Americans don’t recognize the name Roe vs. Wade. Asked about the case by name, 41% in the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey said they had no opinion and 37% in the Pew survey could not correctly identify what the case was about.

Those surveyed had clear views when the ruling was identified to them as the one that established a constitutional right to abortion. Older Americans were significantly more likely than younger ones to identify the case correctly, Pew found.

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The shifting opinion of African Americans and Latinos on abortion could provide support for a theory held by many political scientists about the interaction of partisanship and people’s views on issues. Rather than picking a party based mostly on its issue positions, many people pick a party based on a broader sense of which seems more to identify with them. They then tend to adopt the issue positions espoused by the party’s leaders, the political scientists say.

Republican strategists have argued that Latinos, in particular, could gravitate toward the GOP because of the conservative positions on social issues often found in Latino communities.

But the polling data on abortion, as well as a similar shift on same-sex marriage, could suggest that the opposite has begun to happen: Latinos, having found a home in the Democratic Party, may have started to pick up that party’s views.

Support for abortion rights has become a basic tenet of Democratic politics. The White House released a statement Tuesday on the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision saying that President Obama “stand[s] by its guiding principle: that government should not intrude on our most private family matters, and women should be able to make their own choices about their bodies and their health care.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal survey was conducted Jan. 12-15 among 1,000 American adults. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The Pew survey was conducted Jan. 9-13 among 1,502 American adults. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points. [Update, 2:27 p.m. Jan. 22: The Gallup survey was conducted Dec. 27-30 among 1,012 American adults. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.] All three surveys interviewed people on land lines and cellphones.

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