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.
Abortion views have been very, very stable. The poll we just completed finds 63 percent saying that they don't want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. It was 62 percent 10 years ago. It was 60 percent 20 years ago. So we really haven't seen any rethinking of Roe v. Wade one direction or another. And other questions about abortion are equally stable over time.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Why do you think that's so?
MICHAEL DIMOCK: Well, it's an interesting question. I think one big factor in it is that unlike many other kinds of social issues, there's not a major generational divide when it comes to abortion attitudes. Millennial attitudes are driving a broader cultural change in many areas, including attitudes toward homosexuality or the contributions or threats that immigrants pose in society.
But millennials don't feel that differently about abortion. The balance of opinion on this issue is very similar across the age groups. But we are seeing less of a focus on abortion among younger folks in this survey -- they're far less likely to describe abortion as a "critical issue" facing the country.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It's an interesting divide. Why do you think it exists?
MICHAEL DIMOCK: Yes, on the face of it, they ought to care the most because this is a policy that in their own lives potentially matters more to younger people than older people.
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.
But we asked, 'Do you know what the Roe v. Wade decision was about?' And 62 percent of Americans correctly said it was about abortion. The other 28 percent didn't know what the case was about.
That's particularly true among these younger folks, 18- to 29-years-olds. Only 44 percent of them could identify Roe v. Wade as a court case that dealt with abortion policy.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Another finding that was very interesting was on the question of whether it's morally acceptable to receive an abortion. How did the public divide?
MICHAEL DIMOCK: What we find is that 47 percent -- about half of Americans -- personally think that abortion is "morally wrong." Only a small share, 13 percent, describe abortion as "morally acceptable." Most say that it's either not a moral issue or they don't really feel strongly about it.
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.
Just over half of white evangelical Protestants -- typically one of the most socially conservative religious groups -- want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. Completely overturned. They are the only major religious group in which more than half are supportive of overturning Roe v. Wade.
Other Protestants groups -- white, non-evangelical Protestants, black Protestants -- are much farther to the side of keeping Roe v. Wade, by three to one. Catholics, interestingly, while the Catholic Church position is anti-abortion, Catholic attitudes about abortion have long been much more divided. We find that among all Catholics, a majority -- 55 percent -- say that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned. Only 38 percent would like to see the Court turn that case over.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: I mean, we're really very diverse in our attitudes. Americans can say that as a matter of public policy, they think Roe v. Wade should not be tampered with. And yet they say as an individual they think it's immoral. That's very interesting. Is there anything about polling that gives you a key to our national character to explain this?
MICHAEL DIMOCK: I think that in some respects, abortion is a somewhat unique issue in this realm in that it fundamentally deals with conceptions of life. It's not about a behavior or a lifestyle or a kind of cultural difference between languages or genders or however you want to think about it. At the end of the day, it's a fundamental conceptualization of what life is.
And I think peoples' judgments on that are not as affected by discussions that they're seeing or hearing in popular culture and media. They have, I suspect, more deeply seated values that are connected to that.
And while there's no question that values about abortion are very correlated with religion -- as we talked about, white, evangelical Protestants tend to be very pro-life on these issues, other groups less so. I think it's not just about denominations. I think the views of Catholics are a testament to this. The church's formal position on this is not the driving factor in how people make their own personal judgments on this.
So even as we're seeing a lot of denominational flux and people even striking out independently in the way they think about faith in their lives, their core values when it comes to an issue like that are their own and not necessarily determined by their religious associations or their social networks or their media consumption.
There are a lot of ways to talk about why, say, gay marriage attitudes have shifted so dramatically over the last decade. Is it something that's gone on in pop culture media? Is it something that's gone on in the way children are educated and are growing up to think differently? I don't think that any of those broader external factors are shaping abortion attitudes in the same way. I think that it's a more personal value judgment that people are making.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Are we seeing any other divides that are worth noting?
MICHAEL DIMOCK: Well there's a very big partisan divide over this, not surprisingly. You see a lot more support for overturning Roe v. Wade among Republicans than among Democrats. And on other issues, such as restricting abortions, you see a lot more support among Republicans than Democrats.
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 among 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.
Do you have a health question you would like to see NewsHour health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser address in her weekly blog? Send them to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.