Thirty years after Roe vs. Wade, public support for legal abortion is highly conditional: In some cases, such as to save the woman's life, it's overwhelming; but in others — notably, solely to terminate an unwanted pregnancy — most Americans oppose the procedure.
Generally, 57 percent in this ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 54 percent favor the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 ruling that made it so. While 42 percent want the government and the courts to make abortions harder to get, more either support the status quo, or favor fewer restrictions.
Still, Americans long have been uneasy with the procedure and the reasons it's done — and these doubts remain. Eight in 10 or more say an abortion should be legal to save the woman's life, to preserve her health, or when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest. A much smaller majority, 54 percent, supports legal abortion if there's evidence the baby will be physically impaired.
However, 57 percent oppose abortion solely to end an unwanted pregnancy — "if the mother is unmarried and does not want the baby." And opposition soars to about seven in 10 or more for so-called "partial-birth abortions" or abortions conducted in the sixth month of pregnancy or later.
These views, however, do not constitute a call for broad anti-abortion activism. Forty-one percent say the government and the courts should not alter the current availability of abortions, and an additional 15 percent say they should be easier to get; that leaves the 42 percent, cited above, who want abortions made harder to obtain.
Data on why women say they had an abortion are scarce, but a 1988 study cited by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that few were done for health reasons or because the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest. Most women cited financial concerns or problems with their relationships, or said they weren't ready to have a child.
Late-term and partial-birth abortions, which generate the greatest opposition, account for a tiny percentage of all abortions. Fewer than 2 percent of abortions are done after the fifth month, according to a 1999 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and fewer than two-tenths of 1 percent are partial-birth abortions, according to a 2000 report by the Guttmacher Institute.
At 57 percent, support for legal abortion in all or most cases is about what it's been on average in polls that have asked it this way since 1995. Most Americans eschew the extreme positions: 23 percent want abortion legal in all cases, and 17 percent want it illegal in all cases. About a third say it should be mostly legal; a quarter, mostly illegal.
Age, education and religion each plays a strong role in informing people's views on the issue. But despite conventional wisdom, sex does not. Indeed, as usual, men and women support legal abortion in roughly equal numbers: 54 percent of men, and 58 percent of women, say it should be legal in all or most cases.
In the various conditions tested, moreover, men and women express virtually identical views.
Younger, better-educated Americans and people who profess no religion are more likely to support legal abortion. Catholics are somewhat more supportive than Protestants while opposition is highest among evangelical white Protestants.