Abortion, Public Opinion, and Roe v. Wade

A recent survey conducted by Ayers, McHenry, & Associates, Inc. reveals that even a small amount of purposeful thinking about the meaning and implications of the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade is enough to change many people's minds about whether or not that decision ought to be overturned.

One thousand registered voters across the U.S. were first asked whether or not they favored overturning Roe v. Wade.  The response was 34% for and 55% against.

However, in the next step, the voters were asked about whether or not abortions ought to be legal or illegal in specific types of situations, and in several of the proposed scenarios a strong majority of voters said that abortion should be illegal (e.g., when "the woman does not like the gender of the fetus" (79%) or "the woman thinks a child would interfere with her education or career plans" (72%)).

The voters were then asked the following:

Roe versus Wade prohibits states from restricting abortion during the first six months of pregnancy for any reason, including all those we just discussed.  If Roe were overturned, states could make abortion policies that would permit abortion for some reasons and bar it for others.  Knowing that, would you like the Supreme Court to overturn Roe versus Wade, or not?

This time the response was 43% for and 48% against.  The percentage of blue state voters in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade increased 12%--from 27% to 39%, and the red states switched to being in favor of overturning the ruling (47% to 44%).

What accounts for this quick and significant change?  It could be that people are under the mistaken impression that overturning Roe v. Wade would automatically make abortions illegal rather than merely return the question to a democratic vote within each state.  In this case, the simple explanation of the meaning of Roe v. Wade was enough to change their minds.  Or, it could be that people have never thought carefully through their own position, and seeing clearly that they do want some abortions to be illegal, they realize that they are not in favor of Roe v. Wade declaring those abortions legal without a vote.

Either way, the survey reveals that a bit of clear, reasonable thinking on the subject was enough to help many people connect their already held positions on abortion with the corresponding view of Roe v. Wade. 

The conclusion from the summary memo:

Roe made abortion legal under conditions where an overwhelming majority of voters would prefer for it to be illegal.  Maintaining public policy at such odds with majority will helps to explain why abortion remains such a divisive issue in American politics.

We have a chance to make a difference here.  Just think how many more people would change their minds about Roe v. Wade if given more complete arguments and explanations (about abortion and the Constitution) along with time to think about them.  If the decision were overturned, we would immediately have an overwhelming consensus in this country about the illegality of many types of abortions.  The rest would continue to be debated, of course, but the most divisive aspects of the abortion question would be dramatically diffused.

(See the full report here for the exact questions asked in the survey and the breakdown of responses by red and blue states.)

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Amy K. Hall