Will Shifts in Public Opinion Impact the Abortion Debate?

Will Shifts in Public Opinion Impact the Abortion Debate?
Demonstrations in front of the U.S. Supreme Court pending the decision of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt on June 27, 2016. (Wikimedia Commons)

Just over a week ago, the Supreme Court indicated they would hear a case that presents the most serious challenge to abortion access since 1992. The case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization concerns Mississippi’s Gestational Act, which limits abortion to just the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. This law, if upheld, would be in direct violation of Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that established the constitutional right to abortion before fetal viability, which is generally understood to be around 24 weeks. This is the first time the court will consider abortion rights since former President Trump appointed three conservative justices, giving conservatives the majority.

Reproductive rights activists are sounding alarms about the potential for major rollbacks to Roe, if not a complete gutting, while opponents of abortion are hopeful. This latest news builds on a year of momentum for activists pushing against reproductive rights. Since the beginning of the year, there have been 549 abortion restrictions, including 165 abortion bans, introduced in 47 states. Much of this success can be attributed to Republican wins in statehouses across the country in 2020. But where does the majority of the American public stand on the issue of abortion? And perhaps more importantly, does it matter where they stand?

Attitude Shifts Over Time

The controversy over women’s reproductive rights is so closely linked to partisan politics that many assume Democrat is synonymous with “pro-choice” and Republican is synonymous with “pro-life.” However, this level of partisan polarization on the issue was not the case in 1973 when the Supreme Court ruled that women have a constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade. At the time, among both elite and mass citizens, Democrats and Republicans were equally divided on the issue, with Democrats actually being slightly more pro-life in the aggregate. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and 1980s that pro-abortion and pro-life interest groups began pushing Democratic and Republican elites into their respective corners on the issue and the mass public followed suit.

Despite converging attitudes among Americans on other social issues like gay marriage, abortion continues to be a wedge issue. Abortion attitudes tend to be stable at both the individual and aggregate levels—meaning trends in the attitudes of all Americans remain fairly stable over time, as well as the attitudes of individual citizens. And unlike many political issues on which Americans have malleable attitudes, abortion is one of the few policy areas in which people tend to have crystallized opinions. That said, most Americans have attitudes that lie somewhere between allowing abortion completely as a matter of choice and banning abortion all together though notably more Americans support making abortion legal in all cases compared to making abortion illegal in all cases.

The Role of Gender in Shaping Abortion Attitudes

Women express more support for abortion access than men.

A wealth of academic research and survey data shows that religious beliefs and partisanship are the strongest predictors of Americans’ support for abortion rights. Surprisingly, given how gender salient the issue of abortion is, there is a less consistent link between gender and support for abortion. However, the most recent research and data show that women do in fact express more support for abortion access than men.

The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) recently released a new resource in our research on the gender gap in politics—the Gender Differences in Public Opinion fact sheet. According to data points on this fact sheet from the 2020 American National Election Study (ANES) data and the 2020 Cooperative Election Study (CES) data, there is a gender gap in abortion support between men and women. Looking at the CES data, about 55 percent of women support abortion as a matter of choice compared to about 49 percent of men—a six percentage point gap.

Slightly over 70 percent of both Democratic men and women support abortion as a matter of personal choice.

Looking at the data disaggregated by gender and partisanship reveals more interesting patterns. Among Democrats, gender differences are small. Slightly over 70 percent of both Democratic men and women support abortion as a matter of personal choice according to 2020 ANES data. Comparing the 2020 data to 2016, there is a notable jump in support among Democratic men. Apropos to the previously mentioned Supreme Court case, about 70 percent of Democratic men. Relevant to the Court’s recent announcement, about 70 percent of Democratic men and women say they will be upset if the Supreme Court were to reduce abortion rights.

Will Shifts in Public Opinion Impact the Abortion Debate?
Pro-abortion and anti-abortion demonstrations in the Bay Area in September 2011. (Steve Rhodes / Flickr)

Generally, support for abortion has increased among Republican women but decreased among Republican men.

Gender patterns diverge among Republicans. According to ANES data from 2020 and 2016, support for abortion as a matter of personal choice has increased among Republican women but decreased among Republican men.

In 2016, about 29 percent of Republican men and 21 percent of Republican women supported abortion as a matter of personal choice. In 2020, about 21 percent of Republican men and 24 percent of Republican women reported supporting abortion as a matter of personal choice. However, more Republican women (24 percent) in 2020 than men (20 percent) say that abortion should never be permitted, suggesting that Republican women are more polarized on the issue of abortion than Republican men. Similarly, in 2016, more Republican women (29 percent) than men (18 percent) supported an all-out ban on abortion.

These data suggest that Republican women have increasingly polarized attitudes on abortion and are more likely to have staked out positions on the extreme ends of the abortion debate whereas Republican men are more likely to take a middle ground position.

Furthermore, among Republican women, there is a cleavage in abortion attitudes by education level. Much of the election discourse in 2020 revolved around college-educated suburban white women, historically a bulwark of the Republican Party, potentially moving away from Trump and the Republican Party generally. It’s difficult to say if this has anything to do with increasingly conservative attitudes on abortion in the Republican Party, but among Republican women, there is a divide between those with a four-year degree and those without a four-year degree. Based on 2020 ANES data, about 22 percent of Republican women without a college degree supported abortion as a matter of personal choice compared to about 26 percent of Republican women with a degree.

Will Public Opinion Make a Difference in the Battle Over Abortion Access?   

Most Americans hold moderate positions on abortion, but the Supreme Court’s “ideological median” has shifted to the right.

It’s clear from the data points presented in CAWP’s new research, and other analyses of abortion attitudes over time, that despite how polarizing an issue abortion is among pro-abortion and pro-life advocates, most Americans hold moderate positions on abortion. Furthermore, large majorities of Americans oppose an all-out ban on abortion and most oppose the potential for rollbacks to Roe that the upcoming Supreme Court case presents. However, it’s unclear how much public opinion matters with regard to how policy is shaped and in particular, how the Supreme Court makes decisions.

The Supreme Court, in its ideal state as envisioned by the framers of the Constitution, is supposed to be insulated from the capriciousness of public sentiment. However, it’s difficult to envision a world in which public opinion and mass shifts in attitudes never influence or reach the Court. Indeed, some scholars of the Supreme Court argue that shifting public sentiment may have played a role in the Roe v. Wade decision.

In recent years, Supreme Court decisions on matters like LGBTQ rights do seem to have been in alignment with public opinion. However, with the retirement of Anthony Kennedy and the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the subsequent appointments of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to fill their seats respectively, the court’s “ideological median” has shifted to the right. According to this analysis from Georgetown University professor Michael A. Bailey, the court is now very conservative by historical standards and also, ideologically further apart from the other branches of government, Congress and the presidency, than ever before.

Recent work by political scientists suggests the court’s decisions are rarely out of alignment with public sentiment.

However, recent work by political scientists Adam Bonica and Maya Sen suggests the court’s decisions are rarely out of alignment with public sentiment. In their new book on the different incentives that drive the American judiciary, Bonica and Sen find that even after the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, which changed the median vote on the Court from moderate Anthony Kennedy to conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, the court actually ruled in favor of liberal positions involving LGBTQ rights, abortion access and DACA. This placed the court’s decisions squarely in line with overall public opinion. Their analysis would suggest that despite the Supreme Court’s hard shift to the right in terms of membership, their decision in the upcoming abortion case may align with public sentiment more than we would expect.

It’s impossible to know what the outcome will be in this latest challenge to abortion rights. Americans generally support safe access to abortion and research suggests that SCOTUS decisions rarely deviate from public opinion. However, by historical standards, the current makeup of the court is very conservative and in terms of the overall ideological makeup of the court, it is likely out of line with ideology of the modal American citizen. A recent survey showed that the Supreme Court decision on whether or not juvenile offenders can be sentenced to die in prison was in fact not in alignment with overall public sentiment. This suggests that perhaps in some cases, the court really can be insulated from public opinion.

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Claire Gothreau is a research associate at the Center for American Women and Politics. She works on data collection and analysis at CAWP. She received her B.A. in Political Science from Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA and her Ph.D. from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. At Temple, she was the assistant director of the Behavioral Foundations Lab where she specialized in the collection of physiological data. Her research interests are in American politics with a focus on gender and political psychology. Find her on Twitter at @claire_gothreau.