40 Years of Stability in American Attitudes toward the Legalization of Abortion

By Michele Dillon

News headlines frequently convey what is alleged to be a major shift in public opinion on abortion. At the beginning of February this year, for example, NBC online news had the headline: “NBC/WSJ poll: Majority for the first time, want abortion to be legal” (February 7, 2013; italics mine). Other headlines convey a polarization on the issue, with one from Gallup in 2011 stating, “Americans still split among ‘pro-choice,’ ‘pro-life’ lines” (Saad 2011; italics mine). The sociological reality, however, is less sensational and indeed less newsworthy if criteria for newsworthiness include the expectation of change and/or conflict. Yes, the politics of abortion continue to shadow presidential and congressional elections and judicial nominations and court decisions, and, yes, restrictions on access to abortion have been imposed in several states. There is certainly enough threat around the issue to maintain the pro-life and the pro-choice movements, or more accurately, the social movement organizations (SMOs; e.g., Operation Rescue, NARAL [National Abortion Rights Action League]) that, in effect, compose the pro-life and pro-choice movements, respectively. In my assessment, what is most remarkable across the 40 years since Roe is the stability in American attitudes toward abortion.

As the highly reputable General Social Survey (GSS; Davis and Smith 2010) annual opinion polls show, a majority of Americans since 1973 have favored legal abortion. The consistent pattern in public opinion across the last four decades is that approximately one-fifth are opposed to abortion in any circumstance whatsoever, one-fifth agree that abortion should be legal in all circumstances, and an additional 60 percent agree that abortion should be legal but not across any and all circumstances. For example, based on the most current (2010) GSS data, the vast majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in circumstances such as when the mother’s health is endangered (86 percent), in cases of rape (79 percent), and when there is a strong chance of a fetal defect (74 percent).  Far fewer, less than half, agree that abortion should be legal in circumstances of economic hardship (45 percent), as an option for a married woman who does not want any more children (48 percent), or as an option for any reason (39 percent).  While there is some very slight ebb and flow in opinion from year to year, the status quo has been and remains solidly in favor of abortion’s legalization; the modal response since 1973 is in favor of legal abortion.

I rely on the GSS because its questions are specific—itemizing in separate questions for respondents the varying and highly specific circumstances in which they believe abortion should be legal or illegal. Other polls, especially those commissioned by media organizations, tend to take a generalized and diffused approach asking vaguely worded questions whose face validity and reliability are suspect. Thus the NBC/WSJ poll cited at the beginning of this commentary asked the question: “Which comes closest to your view on abortion: abortion should always be legal, should be legal most of the time, should be made illegal except in cases of rape, incest and to save the mother’s life, or abortion should be made illegal without any exceptions?” We are left wondering what is the difference between “legal most of the time” and “illegal with exceptions.”  A respondent who endorses either one of these options would seem to me to be someone who should be classified as “pro-choice,” notwithstanding differences in their view of the extent to which abortion should be legal but restricted. This question was first asked in 2003; interestingly there is quite a bit of consistency in the “always legal” response (change from 27 percent in 2003 to 31 percent in 2013), and in the “illegal without any exception” response (shift from 14 percent to 9 percent). What supports the NBC headline is the combination of the “always legal” (31 percent) and the “legal most of the time” (23 percent) responses, accounting for 54 percent in 2013 compared to 44 percent in 2003. However, had the proportion who say “illegal with exceptions” been included as favoring (as indicated by the wording: “some types of”) legal abortion, there would be no headline; a majority favored some form of legal abortion in 2003 (84 percent) and in 2013 (89 percent).  As found by the GSS, this NBC/WSJ poll shows a consistent (though smaller) minority agreeing that abortion should be illegal.  In short, a question’s wording and format, and its placing among other questions are all important factors that need to be thoughtfully considered before writing or believing a headline alleging significant change in Americans’ attitudes on abortion.

It is difficult for social movement scholars to assess precisely the outcome(s) of movement activism, and abortion activism is no exception.  The first question that needs to be asked, perhaps, is the extent to which there is, in fact, grassroots activism around abortion; as I alluded to above, pro-life and pro-choice activism seems to be anchored primarily in SMOs rather than driven by mobilized on-the-ground activism, though clearly the SMOs involved are well able to mobilize supporters for specific events (e.g., annual marches) and around specific abortion-related policy change proposals, especially at the state level.  The pro-choice movement might want to claim success for its efforts by pointing to the fact that the minority one-fifth opposed to legal abortion has not grown over the past 40 years despite the energetic activism of pro-life SMOs and despite the prominence and organizational resources that, for example, the US Catholic bishops devote to the anti-abortion cause.

The pro-life movement, however, can claim success in colonizing the “pro-life” label, and thus in winning the symbolic politics of abortion. This success is reflected in public opinion. The polarization to which Gallup refers (Saad 2011) is a polarization not in opinion as to whether abortion should be legal, but in how Americans self-identify. When asked in 2011, “With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?” 49 percent say they are pro-choice and 45 percent say they are pro-life. But in 1995, 56 percent self-described as pro-choice and 33 percent as pro-life. Fewer Americans today, therefore, describe themselves as pro-choice even though the patterns in support of legal abortion have not changed in any significant way since either 1973 or 1995. As Gallup’s own polling data show, since 1975, the trend lines indicating support for the view that abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances are basically stable notwithstanding a few dips and upticks in specific percentages with respect to each discrete category across the forty year interval. Thus, in 1975, 21 percent of Americans favored abortion being illegal in all circumstances, and 22 percent did so in 2011; in 1975, 54 percent—and 50 percent in 2011—favored legal abortion under certain circumstances; and 22 percent in 1975 and 27 percent in 2011 favored legal abortion under any circumstance. Social movement and media scholars are well aware that frames matter, and certainly on abortion it would seem that any shift in the symbolic politics of abortion will require the pro-choice movement to give greater emphasis to “life” than “choice.”  Thus as some pro-choice SMOs are already doing, a shift in messaging that emphasizes women’s reproductive rights might make for more effective PR, while also contributing to strengthening the long-stabilized public support in America for the status quo of legal (but restricted) abortion.


Davis, J. & T. Smith. 2010. General Social Surveys, 1972-2010: Cumulative Codebook. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center.

Saad, L. 2011 (May 23). “Americans still split along ‘pro-choice,’ pro-life’ lines.”

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Roe at 40

One response to “40 Years of Stability in American Attitudes toward the Legalization of Abortion

  1. Eric Hodgdon

    De-Criminalized is inherently preferred as it expresses the relationship between parties, in that, laws take away rights, rather than government granting them. Seeming trivial, the distinction has a profound effect on the perceptions one learns.


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