The under-discussed middle ground in the abortion debate
Pew Research Center’s latest abortion survey shows that labels like ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ don’t capture Americans’ mixed feelings about abortion rights
Americans often think of the abortion debate as a tale of two sides. You’re either for abortion rights or against them. Liberal or conservative. Focused on women’s rights or a faith-based “right to life.”
But the latest data from Pew Research Center shows that most people’s views on abortion are not black and white. Responses change based on circumstances like the length of the pregnancy and whether carrying to term would endanger a woman’s life.
“Relatively few Americans on either side of the debate take an absolutist view on the legality of abortion — either supporting or opposing it at all times, regardless of circumstances,” Pew reported.
Additionally, many Americans support policies that don’t reflect their moral views. “Nearly half of U.S. adults (48%) say there are circumstances in which abortion is morally wrong but should nevertheless be legal,” Pew found.
And although religious groups continue to be major players in the abortion debate, the survey shows faith is far from the only factor influencing public opinion. Just one-third of U.S. adults (36%) say religion plays an “extremely” or “very” important role in shaping their ideas about abortion, the survey said.
Pew’s survey was conducted in March before a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion revealed that the justices could soon overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s based on interviews with 10,441 U.S. adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points.
Overall, around 6 in 10 U.S. adults (61%) believe abortion should be legal with some or no exceptions. But many members of this group say laws should take the length of the pregnancy into account and that abortion providers should notify the parents or guardians of patients under age 18.
“About a third of Americans who generally support legal abortion (33%) say the statement, ‘Human life begins at conception, so a fetus is a person with rights,’ describes their own view at least ‘somewhat’ well,” researchers noted.
Similarly, the 37% of U.S. adults who say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases have more nuanced views on the issue than you might assume. Pew’s survey revealed that nearly half of members of this camp (46%) say abortion should be legal if the woman’s life is at risk and 36% say abortion should be an option when the pregnancy is the result of rape.
Pew found that just 27% of Americans hold an absolutist view. Eight percent say abortion should be illegal in all cases with no exceptions, while 19% say it should be legal in all cases.
By asking respondents who don’t fall into one of those two camps a series of follow-up questions, researchers were able to highlight a few abortion policies that would have strong majority support.
“Nearly three-quarters of adults (73%) say abortion should be legal if the mother’s life or health is endangered by the pregnancy, while just 11% say it should be illegal. And about 7 in 10 say abortion should be legal if the pregnancy is a result of rape, with just 15% saying it should be illegal in this case,” Pew reported.
Americans are more divided over whether abortion should be an option when fetal abnormalities are observed. Around half of U.S. adults (53%) say abortion should be allowed when the baby is likely to have severe disabilities or health problems, while 19% say it should be illegal under those circumstances.
Although Pew’s report focuses on the under-discussed middle ground in the abortion debate, researchers also highlighted findings that confirm some commonly held assumptions. For example, the data showed that Democrats really are much more likely than Republicans to support abortion rights and that white evangelical Protestants are much more opposed to abortion than other people of faith.
Other Protestants and Catholics “tend to be less opposed to legal abortion than white evangelicals, but they are also less supportive of it than religious ‘nones,’” researchers noted.
The survey also included questions about how outlawing abortion would affect the country. Respondents said that stricter laws would reduce the total number of abortions, but perhaps not as well as other policies would.
“While nearly 6 in 10 adults (57%) say they think stricter abortion laws would reduce the number of abortions performed in the United States, similar or larger shares say that increasing support for pregnant women (65%), expanding sex education (60%) and increasing support for parents (58%) would have the same effect,” Pew reported.