The Moderate Majority on Abortion
Most Americans oppose total bans on abortion, yet favor limits on late-term abortion. Here's how to mobilize them post-Dobbs.
For decades, the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” have been bandied about like a strict binary. But many Americans haven’t gotten the message. In a 2015 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), for instance, 27 percent of millennial respondents called themselves both pro-choice and pro-life, while another 22 percent said neither label fits. The finding—and similar results across age groups from other years and polls—left many scratching their heads. Either you’re for abortion or you’re against it, right?
Not really. Survey after survey shows Americans are both broadly supportive of abortion being permitted and that they have nuanced (some might say complicated) views on the matter. In a Gallup poll taken this May, 35 percent of people said abortion should be “legal under any circumstances,” 18 percent said it should be legal in most circumstances, and 32 percent said it should be legal in “a few circumstances.” Only 13 percent said abortion should always be illegal.
The same holds for polling about Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the Supreme Court cases which guided abortion access in the U.S. for several decades until last week’s release of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The Roe decision held that first trimester abortion decisions must be left up to a woman and her doctor, that second trimester regulations “reasonably related to maternal health” were OK, and that bans were permissible in the third trimester so long as there were exceptions “for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.” Casey stipulated that abortion restrictions could not place an “undue burden” on someone seeking an abortion prior to fetal viability, which at the time was around 24 weeks.
In a recent Fox News poll, 63 percent of respondents said the Roe decision should stand, with just 27 percent saying it should be overturned. A 2019 poll from the Pew Research Center saw 70 percent of respondents saying Roe should be upheld and only 28 percent saying it should be overturned. Public opinion on the issue had grown more supportive of Roe since Pew started asking in 1992: back then the divide was 60 percent versus 34 percent. And since the early 1990s, Republican support for Roe has been relatively steady (52 percent in 1992 versus 50 percent in 2019) while Democratic support grew (from 66 percent to 87 percent) over the same time period.
All of this may surprise casual observers, since so much of the abortion battle in politics and the press is dominated by the most polarized positions. One could easily get the impression that all liberals and progressives support abortion at any point in pregnancy for any reason and that all conservatives want to see abortion banned entirely. In truth, American opinion isn’t so neatly divided along party lines, nor among such extreme poles. Researchers routinely find that abortion opinions vary based on how far along a pregnancy is.
Up to now, it’s been easy for the moderate majority to remain blasé about abortion. Yes, Republican-led restrictions over the past few decades have definitely curbed the number of abortion clinics able to legally operate, especially in the South. But because courts were guided by Roe and Casey, no state could successfully ban or severely restrict abortion prior to the point of fetal viability.
In 2022, however, all bets are off. In response to the leaking in May of a draft opinion in Dobbs, a number of states accelerated plans to pass anti-abortion legislation. A bill under consideration in Louisiana would see homicide charges brought against women who get abortions, and against doctors who perform them. Oklahoma lawmakers recently approved a near-total ban on abortion, including “aiding and abetting” an abortion, that would (like the Texas law passed last year) be enforced through citizen lawsuits. A proposal in Missouri would let people sue anyone who helps a Missouri resident get an abortion outside of the state.
There is also the looming threat of a war on abortion-inducing drugs, with more law enforcement devoted to the (time consuming and impossible) task of stopping things like DIY production, telemedicine prescriptions, and abortion pills being sent through the mail. Women who miscarry could find themselves under increasing scrutiny, and pregnant women across the board will be subject to more monitoring and restrictions. And, of course, there’s the likelihood that more self-induced abortions will lead to injury and death among pregnant women.
Watching all of this take place will likely awaken the ambivalent and heretofore unmoved middle—that great swath of Americans who (no matter their personal feelings on abortion) think it should be left to an individual’s conscience or remain a decision made between patients and doctors, at least in early pregnancy. America’s passiveness about reproductive freedom will change if conservatives start putting their anti-abortion advocacy into practice.
There’s already some evidence that abortion restrictions drive pro-choice sentiment. As Republicans lobbied for more and more anti-abortion laws in recent years, Americans have grown marginally more supportive of abortion rights. Gallup has found pro-choice identification on an upswing starting in the mid-2010s. In its May 2022 poll, Gallup reported that 52 percent of respondents said abortion is morally acceptable—up from 47 percent last year, and the highest percentage to say so in two decades. A record-low 38 percent said it’s morally wrong, down from 46 percent in 2021.
Moderate pro-choice politicians and activists also need to seize this moment. As it stands, they too often let their opponents portray them as callous extremists, instead of people who support both children and choice. Some shy away from discussions of any limits at all, as was the case with New York City Mayor Eric Adams last month. The states that have no time limits on abortion should not be the model for advocacy post-Roe. Meanwhile, even if you personally oppose things like parental notification requirements for minors seeking abortions (as I do), abolishing them—as Illinois lawmakers did last year—is not a good target, and goes against what most Americans believe.
Instead, legislating to protect access for the nearly 93 percent of abortions that take place in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy should be the main goal of politicians and activists. They should focus on expanding access to contraception through over-the-counter birth control pills. They should educate about the safety of abortion-inducing drugs (which are only prescribed during the first trimester) and focus on improving their availability.
Of course, the pro-choice side still needs people with a radical and unwavering commitment to reproductive freedom. It needs libertarians to remind people that, in general, prohibition doesn’t work and bans have downstream consequences. But it also needs to encourage a larger base of people broadly respectful of this freedom if it wants to push back against the most extreme abortion laws coming from the right.
In the near future, we’ll see more restrictions on abortion. But these might just pave the way for a different future: one that sees a state-by-state renewal of advocacy around reproductive freedom, and which ultimately focuses attention on the things that bring Americans together on abortion, rather than on those that divide them.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown is a senior editor at Reason magazine.