Why U.S. Views on Abortion Haven’t Changed Much

Adrienna Huffman protests the nomination of John Roberts for Supreme Court justice in 2005, primarily due to his position on Roe v. Wade. Photo by Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images.

If you want to get a group of Americans stoked up, all you have to do is bring up politics. Or immigration. Or abortion.

But surprisingly, attitudes about the landmark Supreme Court decision that gave women the right to have an abortion remain pretty stable. And that’s worth taking note of, because that decision, Roe v. Wade, turns 40 today.

The folks at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., have been asking Americans about Roe v. Wade for years. On this 40th anniversary, their findings are striking — and mostly because of just how much things haven’t changed. In a nation that’s shifted profoundly in recent decades, opinions on this issue haven’t budged much at all.

For a better understanding of of what’s driving that decades-long stability, I spoke with Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Dimock. As I mentioned, stability seems to be the theme of this survey, wouldn’t you say?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Yes, what stands out is how stable public views on abortion have been over the past 20-plus years for such a contentious issue and in a time period where we’ve seen some dramatic changes on other kinds of social issues.

vWade_5_homepage_feature.jpg” title=”Roe v. Wade 5″ alt=”” class=”homepage_feature” />But if I had to guess, it may be two things. One is that the current economic downturn has put an enormous amount of pressure on younger people. And with other issues like gay marriage and gun control coming onto the agenda, abortion probably feels to some like yesterday’s battle. It’s not really at the forefront of the way people are thinking, particularly the way young people are thinking.

It could also just be the basic Roe v. Wade decision occurred before any of them were even born. And it may just feel like a matter that to some extent has been settled in their minds.

But if there were to be a major change, a fundamental change in abortion policy — if, for example, the Court decided to overturn or change the Roe v. Wade decision, or if some other fundamental, broad change were happening in abortion policy, it may well engage that generation. Because, again, this is the generation for whom those policies really matter.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: From your survey, it seems that even though the numbers have stayed pretty stable in terms of support for Roe v. Wade, a lot of Americans don’t even know what Roe v. Wade is. That is, they have no clue what the case was about.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Civic knowledge is always tricky with people. At any given point, only so many can even name the vice president or know who has the majority in Congress.

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But the point is that about half the public thinks abortion is something they find morally wrong.

Yet only a minority of the public, 29 percent, want to see Roe v. Wade overturned.

So we looked into that a little bit farther and what you find is that somewhere around one in five Americans personally sees abortion as something that’s morally wrong, but they still want to keep Roe v. Wade in place.

So, they’re making a distinction between what the public policy ought to be, and what their own personal, moral view of the issue is.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: There were also some findings about Roe v. Wade along religious lines. What were those findings?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: What you see is a fairly large religious divide when it comes to any question about abortion, but also the question of Roe v. Wade.

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One thing you don’t see much is a divide between men and women. And I’ve always found that to be interesting given that this is a policy issue that has fundamentally different impacts across gender lines. Women and men have for a very long time held a very similar balance of opinion about restricting abortion, keeping abortion legal, maintaining Roe v. Wade — almost any way you ask the question.

The difference along gender lines is in the intensity of feeling. Women tend to feel much more strongly about abortion and place a higher priority on the issue on both sides. Women who tend to be pro-choice tend to feel more strongly about it than pro-choice men. And women who are pro-life also tend to feel more strongly about it than pro-life men.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Dimock, thank you so much for your time.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Absolutely. Thank you.

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