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How Republicans are changing on abortion, post-Dobbs

As red states’ attempts to restrict or outlaw abortion have failed, Republicans increasingly favor a national policy, the 2023 American Family Survey shows

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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

Editor’s note: This story is based on data from the 2023 American Family Survey.

Julianne Steindler is a Republican, the sort that many progressive Americans would consider far-right. She listens to Ben Shapiro, for example, and she and her husband moved from California to Georgia in large part because they are Second Amendment champions and wanted to be able to carry a gun.

But on the subject of abortion, Steindler, a mother of four, opposes abortion, but only to a point. She sees questions regarding the morality and legality of abortion as deeply nuanced, and is willing to put aside her own feelings to think of the greater good. She also believes that Americans would be better served by a national policy crafted to satisfy as many people as possible on both the left and the right.

“It is too precarious,” Steindler believes, to have widely disparate policies that result in pregnant women seeking abortions outside of their states.

In this way, Steindler is among a growing number of Americans who, despite their opposition to abortion, see the issue as having become even more complicated since the 2022 Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. In new findings from the ninth annual American Family Survey, nearly half of Republicans said they would prefer a national policy on abortion, instead of letting each state decide. Among Republicans, that’s nearly 10 points higher than when the same question was asked last year.

“I think this is a pretty big deal,” said Jeremy Pope, professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a co-investigator of the study, “in part because Republicans had premised their partisan strategy on having fairly restrictive abortion laws in a bunch of states, and it hasn’t gone that way. Republicans have taken a bath in places like Kansas and Ohio, and Democrats have been pretty good at getting their laws through. Yet everyone seems to be moving toward ‘let’s have one national law.’”

The American Family Survey is an annual, nationwide study conducted by the Deseret News and BYU’s Wheatley Center and Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. Questions about abortion were also asked last year, allowing comparisons of public opinion shortly after the Dobbs decision was announced with how Americans felt a year later.

The findings clearly show what Pope calls “drifting” opinions among Republicans as the states struggle to make policy on an issue that has divided the nation for five decades.

They also show slight changes in public opinion on what stage of pregnancy abortion should be legal, suggesting that policymakers might find a path to consensus in crafting a national policy. And this year, the study also examined what percentage of Americans see abortion as murder, and whether they believe it is equivalent to taking the life of a person who has already been born.  

Taken together, the findings confirm the longstanding partisan divide on the subject of abortion, but also show movement toward some areas of agreement.

“These numbers reflect a near national consensus that abortion should be permitted up to somewhere between around 12 - 18 weeks. In fact, a supermajority — 68% — would place the limit for legal abortions in either the first or second trimester,” the report said.

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What week should abortion be illegal?

In the online poll, conducted Aug. 3-15, 2023, respondents were asked at what point in a pregnancy they think women should be legally allowed to obtain an abortion. The choices were zero weeks (in other words, abortion should not be allowed at any stage of pregnancy), the first trimester, second trimester, third trimester, and 40 weeks (right up to the point of delivery).

Like Steindler, the largest group of respondents — 39% — chose the first trimester, although more Republicans (47%) than Democrats (33%) picked this time frame. The second trimester was the choice of 29% of respondents, with more Democrats (37%) than Republicans (16%) wanting abortion to be legal between 13 and 26 weeks of pregnancy.

Support for abortion fell to 10% among all respondents in the third trimester and to 7% at 40 weeks. A greater number of people (15%) did not want abortion at all than those who support abortion in the latest stage of pregnancy.

But the percentage of people who do not want abortion to be legal at any stage (15%) fell slightly from last year, when 19% of respondents said the same.

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Should there be a national policy on abortion?

When asked whether they would prefer a single national policy on abortion or for states to develop different policies, 62% of respondents said they wanted a national policy, compared to 38% who opted for states.

Again, there is a clear partisan divide, with slightly more than three-quarters of Democrats opting for a national policy, while a majority of “strong” Republicans (57%) or “weak/leaning” Republicans (55%) prefer that states decide their own policies.

But as Pope noted, there was movement on this question since last year, especially among conservatives who are more supportive of a national policy than they were last year. This is notable because so many conservatives wanted abortion returned to the states prior to the Dobbs decision, believing that state control would result in stricter regulation. But the failure of restrictive bills to pass in states like South Carolina and Nebraska, and Ohio’s vote to protect abortion rights in its constitution, have left many abortion opponents thinking that a national policy is necessary to protect unborn lives.

Scott Florence, for example, a father of six and grandfather of 15 who lives in American Fork, Utah, is opposed to abortion except in the case of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother. But he would like to see a national policy on abortion, saying, “I always felt the right to have (an abortion) is not in keeping with my personal beliefs, but I also believe in sustaining the law of the land. There’s not going to be perfect unity, but I would hope that as citizens of the U.S., we could all work together and try to agree on the sanctity of life.”

As a Republican, Florence’s opposition to abortion is in line with most Republicans in the survey, but there are partisan outliers on both ends of the issue. Four percent of Democrats said they didn’t want abortion at all, at any week of pregnancy. And 1% of Republicans said they were OK with abortion up until the point of birth. Those numbers likely reflect people who just don’t care that much about abortion as an issue, Pope said.

He also said that a national policy is likely to not make people as happy as they might think. “In general, the public is more open to a national settlement on these issues, but I think it would be quite hard,” he said. “Activists are really dug in on this thing, and I don’t think it would be easy for members of both parties to take a vote on the kind of compromise that would pass.”

Is abortion the equivalent of murder?

Finally, the American Family Survey questioned respondents about whether abortion is murder, and if it is equivalent to taking the life of a person who has already been born.

A little more than a quarter of respondents said that abortion is equivalent to killing a person who has already been born, but the partisan divide is steep: 48% of Republicans, compared to 10% of Democrats.

More Democrats agreed when asked if abortion is either equivalent to murder or is murder, but is not equivalent to killing a person already born. On that question, nearly 36% agreed overall; Republicans, 59%, and Democrats, 20%.

Respondents were also asked who, if anyone, should be prosecuted when an abortion occurs in a state where the procedure is illegal.

According to the report, “39% would prosecute a doctor for an abortion; 30% would prosecute the woman receiving the abortion; and 22% would prosecute those paying for the procedure.”

Generally, the public is not interested in punishing people for abortions, even when illegal. There is, however, greater consensus on support for mothers: “75% of the public favor ‘access to affordable healthcare that would cover the cost of prenatal care, checkups, screening for medical conditions, postpartum care for pregnant women’ and the partisan differences on this while significant are not enormous. Even among strong Republicans, nearly two out of three (63%) favor such policies,” the report said.

It’s also notable that many of the findings on abortion are consistent when broken down by gender, ethnicity and income.

“For instance, 60% of whites and 63% of Blacks favor abortion being decided with a single national policy. Sixty-three percent of women and 61% of men feel similarly,” the report said. “And the income differences are similarly never more than a couple of percentage points.”

The authors conclude: “The bottom line is that public opinion remains a constant factor in the debate. A compromise that would preserve the right to an abortion but restrict it somewhere after about week 12 is perfectly acceptable to a broad swath of not only the public, but both political parties.”

So, where does America go from here?

“I don’t personally think the (Supreme) Court is going to put a Roe versus Wade back in place. So the real question really is, what will legislatures do?” Pope said.

“And it’s really interesting that the public is drifting back toward a national settlement of these issues,” he said, adding that we’re still very early in the process of adjusting to Dobbs, and he believes that legislatures will eventually find a way to compromise, as they have done in Europe.

“I think it’s very likely that it takes us a decade or more to fully arrive at a new equilibrium (on abortion). If I’m right, and it takes that long, then it will still be less time than we argued over Roe versus Wade.”

The American Family Survey 2023 was conducted online to a matched sample on gender, race, age and education Aug. 3-15, 2023. The sample size is 3,000 and the overall margin of error is +/- 2.1 percentage points.