The 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision, it’s fair to say, is one of the most divisive in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. And the media have largely played up that divisiveness. But a new I&I/TIPP Poll shows that while Americans show deep splits over abortion, their opinions about the controversial medical procedure are far more nuanced than media accounts suggest.
A new Supreme Court ruling on Roe is due any day now. Based on a leaked draft of an earlier version of that decision, it seems highly likely that Roe will be overturned.
With this in mind, the I&I/TIPP Poll asked Americans what they thought would happen if Roe was overturned, and whether they thought abortion should be legal or illegal.
A substantial share — 46% — of the 1,310 adults who responded to the online poll (which was taken from June 8-10 and has a margin of error of +/-2.8 percentage points) said that, even if Roe were overturned, abortions would “remain legal in some states of the nation.”
But 28% said they thought it would be “illegal in all states of the nation.” And a further 26% said they were “not sure,” for a total combined of 54% saying “illegal/not sure.”
What’s surprising is that, despite rhetoric and media reporting to the contrary, overturning Roe does not make abortion illegal. It merely erases its status as a federal right guaranteed under the Constitution, and leaves it up to individual states to determine its legality.
Knowing this, we asked respondents, “If Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, it would be up to each state to decide if abortion would be legal. Do you think that abortion would continue to be legal in your state if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, or would it no longer be legal?”
Among those who took the poll, 46% said they thought abortion would continue to be legal in their state, while 31% said it would no longer be legal. Again, the “not sure” responses were significant: 24%.
Looking at the regional breakdown is instructive. Among northeastern states, which tend to be politically liberal and Democrat-dominated, 61% expect abortion to remain legal. In the far west, another Blue State stronghold, the share is similar: 60%.
But the midwest and south diverge. In the Midwest, for instance, just 41% felt abortion would continue to be legal in their states. In the south, it was even lower: Just 32%.
Predictably, both the northeast (18%) and west (22%) had the lowest responses for “no longer legal.” But, in the midwest that question garnered a 33% response, and in the South, 41%.
Clearly, there are significant regional differences in the legality and regulation of abortion.
As poll after poll shows, states in the Midwest and South tend to be more religious and more Republican. States in the Northeast and West, on the other hand, lean Democratic and less religious. Both those factors correspond strongly to people’s beliefs about abortion.
But the responses to other questions show nuance in how people respond to the most sensitive questions, and suggest that despite debates over legality and constitutionality, Americans have surprising amount of underlying agreement on the actual practice of abortion.
We asked, “Do you think abortion should generally be legal or generally illegal during each of the following stages of pregnancy?” We asked the question for the first, second and third trimesters of a woman’s pregnancy.
For the first three months, 50% of Americans said abortion should be legal, while 22% said it should be illegal. Another 17% said it “depends,” indicating mixed feelings about the legality and/or illegality of the abortion act.
But when the questions moved beyond the first trimester, the responses changed dramatically.
For the second three months of pregnancy, just 23% said abortion should be legal, while nearly twice that level 40% said it should be illegal. “Depends” was a larger response this time, at 27%.
When the question moved to the third and final trimester of pregnancy, only 16% said it should be legal, while 49% said it should be illegal. And 24%, again, said it “depends.”
Two interesting demographic trends emerged from the data, one unexpected and one perhaps expected.
The first is that, while abortion is often viewed as a “woman’s issue,” it’s surprising that men and women tend to see the issue in very similar ways. For instance, on the question of whether abortion should be legal in the first trimester of pregnancy, men (47%) and women (53%) said yes.
For the second trimester, the answers were even closer: 24% of men said yes, compared to 22% of women. For the third trimester, men were at 19%, while women were at 13%.
As for a less-surprising result, the data show a very clear differentiation along political lines when it comes to abortion. For instance, 62% of Democrats and 54% of independents said abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy. Just 30% of Republicans agreed.
As for the second three months, the differences widened: 33% of Democrats said abortion should be legal, compared to 23% of independents but just 8% of Republicans. For the final trimester, 25% of Democrats believe abortion should be legal, compared to 15% among independents and 6% of Republicans.
The latter data suggest why this issue has become so politically fraught, and why it’s likely to set off another long debate about abortion in American life.
The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights research organization, estimates that 26 states are “certain or likely” to restrict abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. It also reports that 22 of those states have anti-abortion laws of varying degrees already in place that will go into effect as soon as Roe goes away.
So, even though Americans have some common ground on abortion, as the I&I/TIPP data show, the the political divide remains deep and very bitter.
President Biden has said he might declare a “national public health emergency” if Roe v. Wade is overturned. But, citing White House officials, the New York Times has reports Biden is also considering “readying the Justice Department to fight any attempt by states to criminalize travel for the purpose of obtaining an abortion, and asserting that Food and Drug Administration regulations granting approval to abortion medications pre-empt any state bans.”
The possibility of reversal has also sparked threats of violence and even assassination.
On June 8, a 26-year-old from California was arrested near Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s home carrying weapons. The man, Nicholas John Roske, told officials he intended to assassinate Kavanaugh because the Trump-appointee was likely to vote to overturn Roe.
Less than a week later, a group called “Shut Down SCOTUS” organized demonstrations outside the U.S. Supreme Court on June 13, calling the possible reversal of Roe a “crisis of democracy.”
Meanwhile, a new report from the Susan B. Anthony Pro-life America group found “individuals and groups have been targeted more than 40 times with violence, vandalism, and intimidation, since the Supreme Court draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade leaked” on May 3.
Shortly after that report, a group called “Jane’s Revenge” claimed responsibility for the series of attacks on pro-life activist centers around the country and declared “open season” on pro-life groups.
It could be a very long summer.
Each month, I&I/TIPP publishes timely and informative data from our polls on this topic and others of interest. TIPP’s reputation for excellence has come from being the most accurate pollster for the past five presidential elections.
Terry Jones is an editor of Issues & Insights. His four decades of journalism experience include serving as national issues editor, economics editor, and editorial page editor for Investor’s Business Daily.