Three-quarters of Americans say they want to keep in place the landmark Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade, that made abortion legal in the United States, but a strong majority would like to see restrictions on abortion rights, according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll.
What the survey found is a great deal of complexity — and sometimes contradiction among Americans — that goes well beyond the talking points of the loudest voices in the debate. In fact, there's a high level of dissatisfaction with abortion policy overall. Almost two-thirds of people said they were either somewhat or very dissatisfied, including 66% of those who self-identify as "pro-life" and 62% of those who self-identify as "pro-choice."
"What it speaks to is the fact that the debate is dominated by the extreme positions on both sides," said Barbara Carvalho, director of the Marist Poll, which conducted the survey. "People do see the issue as very complicated, very complex. Their positions don't fall along one side or the other. ... The debate is about the extremes, and that's not where the public is."
The poll comes as several states have pushed to limit abortions in hopes of getting the Supreme Court to reconsider the issue. Abortion-rights opponents hope the newly conservative court will either overturn Roe or effectively gut it by upholding severe restrictions. The survey finds that while most Americans favor limiting abortion, they don't want it to be illegal and don't want to go as far as states like Alabama, for example, which would ban it completely except if the woman's life is endangered or health is at risk.
A total of 77% say the Supreme Court should uphold Roe, but within that there's a lot of nuance — 26% say they would like to see it remain in place, but with more restrictions added; 21% want to see Roe expanded to establish the right to abortion under any circumstance; 16% want to keep it the way it is; and 14% want to see some of the restrictions allowed under Roe reduced. Just 13% overall say it should be overturned.
Even though Americans are solidly against overturning Roe, a majority would also like to see abortion restricted in various ways. In a separate question, respondents were asked which of six choices comes closest to their view of abortion policy.
In all, 61% said they were in favor of a combination of limitations that included allowing abortion in just the first three months of a pregnancy (23%); only in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the woman (29%); or only to save the life of the woman (9%).
Eighteen percent said abortion should be available to a woman any time she wants during her entire pregnancy. At the other end of the spectrum, 9% said it should never be permitted under any circumstance.
More than half (53%) of Americans say they would definitely not vote for a candidate who would appoint judges to the Supreme Court who would limit or overturn Roe.
Politically, abortion has been a stronger voting issue for Republicans than for Democrats. This poll found that abortion ranks as the second-most-important issue for Republicans in deciding their vote for president, behind immigration. But for Democrats, it is fifth — behind health care, America's role in the world, climate change and personal financial well-being.
The poll also notably found the highest percentage of people self-identifying as "pro-choice," those who generally support abortion rights, since a Gallup survey in December 2012. In this survey, 57% identified that way versus 35%, who called themselves "pro-life," those who are generally opposed to abortion rights.
The percentage self-identifying as "pro-choice" is an increase since a Marist Poll in February, when the two sides split with 47% each. The pollsters attribute that shift to efforts in various states to severely restrict abortion.
"The public is very reactive to the arguments being put forth by the more committed advocates on both sides of the issue," Carvalho said, adding, "The danger for Republicans is that when you look at independents, independents are moving more toward Democrats on this issue. ... When the debate starts overstepping what public opinion believes to be common sense, we've seen independents moving in Democrats' corner."
In the case of self-identification, 60% of independents identified as "pro-choice." Asked which party would do a better job of dealing with the issue of abortion, a plurality of Americans overall chose Democrats (47%) over Republicans (34%).
Independents chose Democrats on the question of which party would do a better job by an 11-point margin (43% to 32%).
Asked if they'd be more likely to support state laws that decriminalize abortion and make laws less strict or ones that do the opposite, 60% of Americans overall, including two-thirds of independents, chose laws that decriminalize abortion and are less strict.
What specifically do Americans support and oppose?
The poll also asked a long series of questions to try to figure out what Americans support or oppose when it comes to potential changes to abortion laws pending in several states. Poll respondents were not told which states these proposals come from.
The poll found that Americans are very much against requiring fines and/or prison time for doctors who perform abortions. There was also slim majority support for allowing abortions at any time during a pregnancy if there is no viability outside the womb and for requiring insurance companies to cover abortion procedures. A slim majority also opposed allowing pharmacists and health providers the ability to opt out of providing medicine or surgical procedures that result in abortion.
At the same time, two-thirds were in favor of a 24-hour waiting period from the time a woman meets with a health care professional until having the abortion procedure itself; two-thirds wanted doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges; and a slim majority wanted the law to require women to be shown an ultrasound image at least 24 hours before an abortion procedure.
"What's most interesting here," Carvalho said, is that "the extremes are really outliers. When they advocate for their positions and change the debate toward the most extreme position on the issue, they actually do the opposite. They move public opinion away from them."
The more vocal advocates on either side, however, have had the ability to shift the debate and public opinion to their point of view. Consider that many of the specific items above, at one point or another, have been hotly debated.
When does life begin?
The poll also asked the very big question of when Americans think life begins. There was not an overwhelming consensus. A plurality of the six choices given, but far less than a majority, said life begins at conception (38%). Slightly more than half (53%) disagreed, saying that life begins either within the first eight weeks of pregnancy (8%), the first three months (8%), between three and six months (7%), when a fetus is viable (14%) or at birth (16%).
Gender gap? Try a stark party divide, particularly among women
The most acute divide among Americans on the issue of abortion, arguably, is not a gender divide but between the parties — and of women of different parties.
For example, 54% of men identified as "pro-choice," compared with 60% of women. For women of the different parties, 77% of Democratic women identified as "pro-choice," while 68% of Republican women identified as "pro-life." (A lower percentage of Republican men, 59%, considered themselves "pro-life.")
Throughout the poll, the divide was stark. On Roe, for example, 62% of Republican women said overturn it or add restrictions; 73% of Democratic women said keep it the way it is, expand it to allow abortions under any circumstance or reduce some of the restrictions.
Eighty-four percent of Democratic women said they are more likely to support state laws that decriminalize abortion and make laws less strict; 62% of Republican women said they are more likely to support laws that criminalize abortion or make laws stricter.
On requiring insurance companies to cover abortion procedures, 75% of Democratic women support that, while 78% of Republican women oppose it, higher than the 63% of Republican men who said the same.
Republican women also stand out for the 62% of them who said they oppose laws that allow abortion at any time during pregnancy in cases of rape or incest. They are the only group to voice majority opposition to that. Fifty-nine percent of Republican men, for example, said they would support such a law.
And Republican women are the only group to say overwhelmingly that life begins at conception. About three-quarters said so, compared with less than half of Republican men and a third of Democratic women.
It's a reminder that Republican women, in many ways, are the backbone of the movement opposing abortion rights.
The survey of 944 adults was conducted by live interviewers by telephone from May 31 through June 4. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Editor's note: The survey asked respondents to identify as either "pro-life" or "pro-choice." This question wording, using the labels "pro-life" and "pro-choice," was included in the survey because it has tracked the public debate on abortion over decades. It is sensitive to current events and public discussion even though it does not capture the nuanced positions many people have on the issue.