Key facts about the abortion debate in America

Abortion-rights advocates (right) and anti-abortion advocates (left) rally outside of the Supreme Court in 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Nearly five decades after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, opponents and supporters of abortion rights are still battling over the issue in court, at the ballot box and in state legislatures. Several states have introduced or passed new restrictions on abortion in 2021 with an eye toward giving the Supreme Court a chance to overturn its decision in Roe, and the high court agreed in May to review a Mississippi law that aims to make most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy illegal. The case will be the court’s first abortion law review since Justice Amy Coney Barrett took the bench in October.

As the debate over abortion continues, here are key facts about Americans’ views on the topic, based on Pew Research Center polls.

Public views of abortion, 1995-2021

Around six-in-ten U.S. adults (59%) say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases; 39% say it should be illegal in all or most cases, according to a survey conducted this spring. Though abortion is a divisive issue, about six-in-ten U.S. adults do not take an absolutist position on abortion: 34% say that it should be legal in most – but not all – cases, while 26% say it should be illegal in most but not all cases. Smaller shares take the position that abortion should be either legal (25%) or illegal (13%) in all cases. While Americans’ support for legal abortion has fluctuated somewhat in recent decades, it has remained relatively consistent in the past five years.

While abortion has long divided political partisans, the partisan gap is now considerably wider than it was in the past. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are much more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to say abortion should be legal in all or most cases today (80% vs. 35%). This 45 percentage point gap is up from the 33-point gap in 2016, when 72% of Democrats and 39% of Republicans supported legal abortion in all or most cases.

White evangelical Protestants are the least likely religious group to support legal abortion

Attitudes about whether abortion should be legal vary widely by religious affiliation. Around three-quarters of White evangelical Protestants (77%) say it should be illegal in all or most cases, while 21% say it should be legal in at least most instances. By comparison, a 63% majority of White Protestants who are not evangelical say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Catholics’ views are more narrowly split – 55% favor legal abortion in all or most cases, while 43% say it should be illegal in all or most cases. Religiously unaffiliated Americans overwhelmingly support legal abortion: 82% say it should be legal in all or most cases.

Sizable minorities of Republicans and Democrats said in a 2019 survey that they did not agree with the dominant position on abortion policy of the party they identify with or lean toward. About one-third of Republicans or GOP leaners said they did not agree with their party on abortion (35%). This includes about one-in-ten (12%) who said they agreed with the Democratic Party on abortion and 23% who said they did not agree with either party. Among Democrats and those who lean toward that party, 29% did not agree with their party on abortion, including 7% who said they agreed with the GOP and 22% who said they didn’t agree with either party. These views also vary to some degree within party by age and education.

Democrats with less education more likely to split with party on abortion
Republicans divided on whether Roe v. Wade should be completely overturned

When it comes to the Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark abortion ruling, seven-in-ten Americans said in the Center’s 2019 survey that they would not like to see the Supreme Court completely overturn its Roe v. Wade decision. Again, Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to hold this view, while Republicans were roughly evenly divided, with 50% saying they would not want to see Roe v. Wade completely overturned and 48% saying they would. Overall, similar majorities of women (70%) and men (69%) said they do not want Roe v. Wade completely overturned.

In a December 2017 survey, roughly half of Americans (48%) said having an abortion is morally wrong, while 20% said it is morally acceptable and 31% said it is not a moral issue. As is the case with views on whether abortion should be legal, these views differed by religious affiliation: About three-quarters of evangelical Protestants (77%) said having an abortion is morally wrong, but just 24% of religiously unaffiliated people agreed.

Note: This is an update to a post originally published Jan. 22, 2014.

Michael Lipka  is an editorial manager of religion research at Pew Research Center.

Leave a Comment