Twenty-eight years after the U.S. Supreme Court made abortion legal, nearly six in 10 Americans say it should stay that way. But there are layers to public tolerance for the procedure.
Generally, 59 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a number that's held fairly steady the last several years. But views differ with the circumstance, and a majority opposes legal abortion if it's performed solely to end an unwanted pregnancy.
Indeed, views on abortion run a spectrum. At one end, eight in 10 or more say abortion should be legal to preserve the mother's life or health, or when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest. At the other end, 55 percent say abortion should be illegal "when the woman is not married and does not want the baby."
These views have been generally stable over time, although support for legal abortion in all or most cases is up six points from last summer, when it had dipped to a six-year low.
The basic question asks if abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases or illegal in all cases. Relatively few people take the extremes: Twenty-one percent want abortion legal "in all cases," while 14 percent want it always illegal.
Women, Men, Catholics
As long has been the case, women and men support legal abortion in roughly equal numbers. In this poll 61 percent of women and 58 percent of men say it should be legal in all or most cases. And while 58 percent of men say abortion should be illegal to end an unwanted pregnancy, so do 52 percent of women.
Support for legal abortion also is essentially the same among Catholics (62 percent) as among others — again, as long has been the case. In the specific case of an unwanted child, white Catholics are nine points more likely than white Protestants to support legal abortion.
There are notable differences among political and ideological groups. About two-thirds of Democrats and independents alike support legal abortion; this falls to just under half of Republicans. Legal abortion in general is supported by two-thirds or more of moderates and liberals, while it's opposed by most conservatives.
Opposition is highest among the 9 percent of Americans who describe themselves as part of the conservative Christian political movement. Seventy percent in this group say abortion should be generally illegal.
People who say they voted for George W. Bush in November divide evenly on the question: Forty-nine percent support legal abortion, 50 percent oppose it. Al Gore's supporters favor legal abortion by 73-25 percent.
There's an even sharper split between Bush and Gore supporters on whether abortion should be legal to end an unwanted pregnancy. Bush supporters say no by a 2-1 margin, 65-34 percent; Gore supporters say yes, by a similar margin.
The Bush administration said today it would block funds to international family planning groups that offer abortions.
An ABCNEWS analysis during the election found that anti-abortion women assigned the highest importance to abortion as a factor in their vote, followed by anti-abortion men. The lowest focus on the issue came from men who favor legal abortion.
There are differences in support for legal abortion among other groups: It's lowest among older, less-educated and lower-income Americans, and higher in the East and West than in the South or Midwest.
The public gives a comparatively low priority to one specific item on the abortion agenda, a ban on so-called "partial-birth" abortion. Forty-five percent say this should receive either a high priority or the highest priority in Washington, ranking it last of 18 items tested.
Among those who say abortion should be generally illegal, 70 percent give priority to a ban on partial-birth abortion. But among the majority who favor generally legal abortion, just 28 percent give a priority to banning this specific procedure.
This ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 11-15, among a random national sample of 1,513 adults. The results have a 2.5-point error margin. Fieldwork conducted by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.
Previous ABCNEWS polls can be found in our Poll Vault.