January 22 will mark the 40-year anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. Perhaps the most controversial Supreme Court decision ever, the ruling sparked an intense debate that has shown no signs of abating in the decades since. Moreover, despite impassioned arguments from both sides, public opinion on the matter has shifted very little.
A new report from AEI’s Political Corner examines 40 year worth of public opinion data on abortion and finds that:
Opinion on abortion has been very stable. Between 1975 and 2012, Gallup has asked the identical question on abortion more than 50 times. In 1975, 21 percent said abortion should be legal under all circumstances, 54 percent legal only under certain circumstances, and 22 percent illegal in all circumstances. Those responses in Gallup’s May 2012 poll were very similar: 25, 52, and 20 percent, respectively. This constancy of opinion is evident on many questions in this document.
Here’s Gallup’s tracking data on abortion’s legality going back to 2001:
The report also notes that Americans hold fundamentally contradictory views on abortion. For example, majorities consider it murder, but majorities also believe that it should be a personal choice left up to the woman.
While the large majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances, there is also broad support for policies that would restrict easy access to the procedure. For example, in 2011 69% favored a law requiring women to wait 24 hours before the procedure was done and 71% supported a law requiring women under 18 to get parental consent for abortions.
When asked more generally whether abortion laws should become stricter, less strict, or remain the same, the plurality of Americans said they should remain the same. But nearly as many said that laws should become more strict, while those in favor of looser laws were in the distinct minority.
Americans don’t really like the idea of taxpayer dollars being used to fund abortions. In 2009, 56% said that federally-subsidized health insurance plans should not cover abortion, while 72% opposed allowing abortions to be paid for by public funds in the new health care law. More generally, 61% were opposed to the idea of using public funds for abortions when the woman can’t afford it.
Check out the full report for reams of additional data, including polls on a constitutional amendment to ban abortion and an in-depth look at how various demographic subgroups felt about the issue over time.