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American Family Survey: When it comes to abortion, there are the extremes — and then everybody else

New findings show that most Americans hold nuanced views on abortion that could help states craft policy

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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

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The American Family Survey is an annual, nationwide study of 3,000 Americans by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. See full survey report.


The American Family Survey is an annual, nationwide study of 3,000 Americans by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. See full survey report.

Jessi Bridges, a home-schooling mother of five who lives in Las Vegas, does not hesitate when asked at what stage of a pregnancy abortion should be illegal. She doesn’t believe abortion should be legal at all, not even in the first trimester.

In holding this view, Bridges, 37, is at the far edges of public sentiment in what is widely seen as one of America’s most contentious debates. According to new findings from the American Family Survey, the majority of Americans — about 86% — express varied and nuanced positions about abortion that rarely surface amid partisan rhetoric. 

These nuances also go unnoticed in polls that simply ask Americans if abortion should be legal or illegal in all or most cases. The American Family Survey asked respondents that question, but also asked them to identify, using a sliding scale from zero to 40, the week up to which abortion should be legal.

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Their answers, which reveal layers of complexity, provide a new way of examining how Americans feel about abortion and suggest that policymakers should consider approaching the issue differently.

“If you look at who wants abortion to be legal up to 40 weeks and have access all the way to the end with no restrictions, that’s a pretty small number. On the other side, it’s also a pretty small number for zero weeks of legality and no exceptions whatsoever,” said Christopher F. Karpowitz, co-director for the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University and a co-investigator of the study. 

“Both of these extreme positions are unpopular, and that means politicians who are guided by those extremes are going to be out of step with public opinion in substantial ways, on both sides,” Karpowitz said.

The majority of respondents are also not in the line with the Supreme Court decision that sent abortion law back to the states, with 56% of Americans saying they would prefer one national policy on abortion.  

On this and other questions about abortion — including access to abortion pills from out of state — the American Family Survey reveals that a substantial number of Americans hold moderate positions that might help states craft policy without the acrimony that has marked abortion debate for nearly 50 years.

New questions

Karpowitz said the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning Roe v. Wade, not only upended nearly five decades of abortion policy in the U.S., but also raised additional questions around the issue; for example, whether states that have extremely restrictive abortion laws should be able to prohibit their residents from obtaining medication that induces abortion by mail from other states.

Post-Dobbs, state legislatures are also having to grapple with at what point in a pregnancy abortion should be allowed, if at all. And some legislators, such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, are seeking a national policy that would ban abortion after a specific week. 

While lawmakers have different ideas about what a national policy would look like, the greatest share of people who want a federal law are in a different political party than Graham, a Republican.

Liberal and moderate Democrats are the most likely to want a national policy that is consistent across all states, at 83% and 66%, respectively. Moderate Republicans are more evenly split, with 45% wanting a national policy and 55% wanting states to make abortion law. Conservative Republicans break sharply with the majority on the issue, with 31% wanting a national policy and 69% wanting states to develop their own policy.

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That’s in keeping with how Republicans generally view the authority of states versus the federal government, Karpowitz noted. “That’s been their position under Roe, and that’s true with respect for a variety of public policy issues.”

But, he added, “I think it’s important to look at the moderates. Their presence means there’s room for some negotiation if partisan leaders want to pay attention to them. That’s the tension here. Party leaders and often party platforms are driven by activists who are taking more extreme positions than ordinary voters tend to take.”

In particular, Black Democrats who define themselves as moderate are an important constituency for the Democrat Party, but close to moderate Republicans on the issue of abortion.

“Black Democrats who define themselves as moderate are also a lot more likely to go to church each week,” Karpowitz said. “That doesn’t mean they’re in step with white evangelicals all the time; it just means they’re a group to watch and there are some interesting things going on in their opinions about national policy. It’s a group that creates some opportunity for consensus building across party lines if party officials are interested in that.”

Graham’s proposed legislation that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks was not widely praised, even within his own party, but the date in his proposed legislation was in fact a week after the average week chosen by American Family Survey respondents, which was 14.

Among respondents who said that abortion should be legal in all cases, the average number of weeks abortion should be allowed was 24. Of those who said abortion should be legal in most cases, the average number of weeks was 16.

That’s the number chosen by Katherin Garland, a politically independent voter in Jacksonville, Florida.

Garland, a 49-year-old associate professor of education who is married with two young-adult children, said she believes abortion should be legal in all cases up to 16 weeks. She selected that date, early in the second trimester, because it gives women plenty of time to realize they are pregnant and then extra time to think carefully about the decision, she said. “You need enough time to think and process whether (abortion) is a mistake.”

While Garland is sure of where she stands on states prohibiting the purchase of abortion pills from out-of-state — she believes states should not seek to criminalize the purchase — she is less sure where she stands on who sets policy.

“I lean toward a national law. States’ rights are there for a reason, but at the same time, we’re supposed to be the United States.”

Katherin Garland, a Florida professor, at her desk in Jacksonville, Fla.

Katherin Garland, an associate professor in Florida who is politically independent, believes abortion should be legal in all cases up to 16 weeks in a pregnancy.

Dana Smith, Clicks and Captions Photography LLC

When it comes to the question of whether states should be able to prohibit residents from obtaining abortion pills from out-of-state, Garland is in line with a clear majority who say no. Only 24% said states should have that power, and even among those who said abortion should be illegal in most cases, a minority (37%) said states should be able to prohibit mail-order abortion pills.

Of respondents who said that abortion should be illegal in all cases, 43% said states should not prohibit residents from ordering pills from out-of-state; 57% said that states should.

‘New equilibrium’

When Americans were asked whether abortion should be one of four things — legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in all cases, illegal in most cases — their answers were largely in line with other recent polling that shows similar shares on both sides of the divide. For example, 29% said that abortion should be illegal in most cases and 29% said that abortion should be legal in most cases.

The shares of people who believe abortion should be illegal in all cases are quite small (7%) until you break the numbers down by political party and look at conservative Republicans.

Twenty-one percent of conservative Republicans say abortion should always be illegal, like Bridges, a registered Republican in Las Vegas, believes.

Jessi Bridges is a mother of five in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Jessi Bridges, a mother of five in Las Vegas, Nevada, is among the 7% of Americans who say that abortion should banned in all cases, per the American Family Survey.

But on this question, moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans are virtually identical; with only 6% of moderate Democrats saying abortion should be illegal in all cases, compared with 5% of moderate Republicans.

That is the sort of finding that should cause policymakers to pay attention, even though there are more conservative Republicans than moderate Republicans, Karpowitz said.

“In the aftermath of Roe being overruled, there were states that had trigger laws or who immediately jumped into maximalist positions. These results are a caution to maybe go a little slower and think harder about what policy is consistent, not just with activists on either side of this issue, but with where most Americans happen to be.”

Karpowitz and his co-investigator at Brigham Young University, Jeremy C. Pope, also said that other polling and media reports should examine the nuances in Americans’ beliefs.

“Often, media reports focus on the extremes of this debate — either total prohibition or access through the final days of pregnancy. But both of those positions are unpopular, as the new questions we have introduced make clear,” the report said.

“Those who generally favor abortion access also see a role for regulatory limitations, and those who want to reduce abortion access also embrace a variety of possible exceptions. Even those who appear extreme in some survey questions turn out to be less so when we ask about different elements of abortion policy. Greater effort to both understand and communicate the complexity of Americans’ abortion beliefs could bear fruit for politicians seeking a new equilibrium on these issues.”

The American Family Survey was conducted online to a matched sample on gender, race, age and education between Aug. 8-15, 2022. The sample size is 3,000, and the overall margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 1.9 percentage points.