The 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade on Monday provided ample opportunity for a lot to be said about very little change. Many left-leaning publications focused on in on a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that showed 70% of US adults supporting the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The finding featured prominently in articles in The New Republic, Think Progress, and The Huffington Post. Tara Culp-Ressler of Think Progress cites the statistic, then immediately laments the 135 state-level abortion restrictions enacted over the last two years. But these aren’t incompatible phenomenon. All three pieces fail to ask why Americans have grown more supportive of Roe v. Wade. It’s not because they’ve grown more supportive of abortion. Opinions have hardly changed since the mid–1970’s, when pollsters first explored the topic. For example, 21% told Gallup pollsters in April of 1975 that abortion should be legal in all circumstances and 25% gave that response in Gallup’s 2012 asking. In 1975, 54% said abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, 52% gave that response in 2012. And 22% in 1975 said it should be illegal in all circumstances, while 20% gave that response in 2012.
Support for Roe v. Wade has increased while policies that restrict access to abortion have also remained popular. Americans favor spousal notification before an abortion takes place, the consent of a parent, and a waiting period. Most people don’t think a women should be able to get an abortion if she is married and doesn’t want to have more kids, if she wants to for any reason, and if she is not married and doesn’t want to marry the man. In addition, while a majority supports legal abortion in the first three months, they oppose it thereafter. These attitudes have not changed much over time either. They’ve remained stable as support for Roe v. Wade has increased.
When most Americans think of the Roe v. Wade decision, they probably know that the decision established a woman’s right to an abortion. But they may also view it as representing the status quo in the country. In other words, many state-level restrictions on abortion contribute to American’s growing support for Roe v. Wade. It’s popularity signals that most Americans have grown comfortable with the current policies surrounding the availability and restriction on abortion.