The Contradictions of Abortion Polling


The conventional wisdom on abortion polling is that the Supreme Court is walking into a gale-force political wind if it overturns Roe v. Wade. Gallup reported last week that 55% of Americans identify as pro-choice, up six points since 2021 and near a record high. The Journal’s poll last week says 68% of people hope the Supreme Court doesn’t completely overturn Roe.

Movement in such topline figures is meaningful, but it obscures as much as it reveals. What do people mean when they identify as pro-choice? In the Gallup survey, 67% of Americans say abortion should be “generally legal” in the first three months of pregnancy. But it falls precipitously to 36% in the second trimester and 20% in the final trimester.

Recall what the Supreme Court is deciding in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The Mississippi law under review generally bans abortion after 15 weeks. That’s the second trimester. According to Gallup, that has public opinion on its side. “A majority of Americans (55%) are generally against abortion in the second three months,” the pollster says. This is the same percentage who called themselves pro-choice.

In other words, there are many pro-choice Americans who nonetheless oppose abortion in the second and third trimesters, and this isn’t necessarily inconsistent. One study of 2019 abortions in the U.S. says that 79% were performed at nine weeks or less of pregnancy, and 93% at 13 weeks or less.

That’s key context for the polls that ask whether abortion should be legal in “most” circumstances. Someone can say yes while still supporting restrictions like Mississippi’s.

The Journal poll frames the question in terms of weeks, not trimesters, and it gets different answers. It says only 34% of Americans want to ban abortion after 15 weeks, while 43% are opposed, and 21% are neither. Even so, this isn’t the consensus that Democrats are trying to project, especially if the result depends so much on the wording of the question. Also, what ultimately matters is state opinion. Mississippi is presumably more supportive of the state’s post-15 week ban than is the nation as a whole.

The real contradiction in the polling is Roe, which has become a totem that doesn’t reflect the underlying policy views. Fifty-five percent of Americans tell Gallup that abortion should be generally illegal in the second trimester. Yet a majority say the Supreme Court should keep Roe. That circle can’t be squared, and it probably reflects that many Americans don’t realize what Roe really allows.

The Roe line of precedent enshrines a fundamental right to abortion until fetal viability, about 23 or 24 weeks. That’s almost the third trimester. In practice under Roe, however, abortion is legal right up to the day before birth and for any reason if a woman can find a doctor willing to perform it.

All of this complicates the media narrative that reversing Roe will be a political bonanza for Democrats, which they seem to believe. Only two of them in Congress—Sen.

Joe Manchin

and Rep.

Henry Cuellar

—voted no recently when Democrats tried to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act. That bill guarantees abortion access through viability, and through all nine months if a health provider deems the pregnancy a “health” risk. Does that include mental health? It also protects sex-selective abortions and undercuts state laws that require parental involvement for minors.

Public opinion on abortion policy remains diverse and for the most part more moderate. How the politics shakes out depends on how the debate and policies go in the states. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, some states will ban abortion and some will allow it with few limits.

Others might settle at 15 or 18 weeks, roughly where democratic laws in Europe have come out. The polling suggests that’s what many Americans favor. But whatever people tell pollsters about Roe as precedent, they can’t get the policy they seem to want until Roe goes and the political debate opens up.

Wonder Land: The end of Roe would erode the foundations not just of abortion, but of an entire philosophy of American governance born 50 years ago with Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” Image: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

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