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Do state abortion policies represent citizen views?

Support for abortion to protect life of the pregnant outpaces opposition in every state, according to a national poll by the COVID States Project
Protest sign in front of Supreme Court
Protesters gather at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. in response to the court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Do the policies of states passing new laws to restrict access to abortion align with the views of the citizens they serve? What are Americans’ opinions on a variety of pregnancy scenarios?

Within one month of the leaked Supreme Court majority opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade in May, 13 states rushed to sign “trigger” bills that would place greater restrictions on access to abortion if the 1973 decision were to be overturned, as it later was.

A national poll published July 11 by the COVID States Project indicates that a majority of Americans in most states support life-saving abortion care — and that states which have enacted laws banning abortion without an exception for rape are at odds with majorities of their own residents. 

Many still struggle with the issue

But the poll also indicates that a smaller but still sizeable number of Americans continues to struggle with the issue, as indicated by an absence of responses to parts of the survey. Roughly around one-third of those surveyed did not voice their opinion in seven of the nine abortion scenarios asked about, with that figure dropping to one-quarter for cases of rape and cases where the mother’s life was in danger.

In comparing state responses, the researchers find support of life-saving abortion care is strongest (roughly 12 percentage points more) in states where abortion is legal up to viability than in states where abortion is prohibited except for rape and incest. 

In states where abortion is currently banned without exception for rape or incest, a majority of their residents (55%) support abortion in pregnancies caused by rape. Just 17% oppose abortion in rape cases, with the remaining respondents not voicing an opinion.

Support wanes after viability

The survey of 24,414 individuals between June 8 and July 6 was conducted by a consortium of researchers from Northwestern, Northeastern, Harvard and Rutgers universities. The survey examined attitudes toward abortion in nine different scenarios across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The poll also looks at how important the issue of abortion is to the nation overall, as well as across states, and it breaks down responses by age, gender, and race and ethnicity, among others.

Support for abortion wanes in every U.S. state after fetal viability, the point at which states could prohibit abortion as established by the 1973 Roe v. Casey ruling but that was struck down in Dobbs this June. Even in states where abortion is legal without gestational limits, opposition to abortion after fetal viability is more than double the share that supports such abortions (46% oppose versus 21% support, with the remaining respondents not voicing an opinion).

In states where abortion is currently banned without exception for rape or incest, the percentage of residents who support abortion in pregnancies caused by rape.

“The public’s opinions on abortion are certainly nuanced — their opposition to no access under any circumstance is very clear, but they also support restrictions based on viability,” said political scientist James Druckman, one of the consortium researchers. “This makes it a complicated issue with limited mobilizational capacity for the Democrats. The bulk of Democrats live in states that have laws consistent with their preferences and it is unlikely Republicans in states with highly restrictive laws would shift their voting patterns due to the issue.”

Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and associate director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern.

Other key findings of the report

  • Around one in two Americans support abortion if the fetus is at risk for serious health problems or birth defects, compared to around two out of five Americans who oppose it.
  • States with populations most opposed to this stance tend to be in the South — where in many, it is not legal to get an abortion for fetal abnormalities — while majorities in some Northeastern states support abortion under these circumstances.
  • Nationally, women overall, Hispanic women, young women, liberals and Democrats are most likely to rate abortion as an “extremely important” issue.
  • Nearly half of Democrats (48%) versus over one-third of Republicans (36%) rate abortion as “extremely important.” Similarly, 53% of those who self-identify as liberals rate abortion as “extremely important” compared to 39% of self-identified conservatives.
  • Regionally, respondents who live in the Northeast consistently voice the highest support for abortions across all scenarios, followed by those on the West Coast and in parts of the upper Midwest. Those living in the South tend to be least supportive, followed by respondents who live in Great Plains and Northern Mountain states. These regional percentages also, to a modest extent, align with how restrictive abortion policies are in each region. For example, lower public support for abortion tracks with more restrictive state policies.

Since 2020, the COVID States Project, a multi-university team of researchers, has studied social behavior, virus transmission and the impact of messaging and regulation to help practitioners and the government make informed decisions and allocate resources effectively. Report #88, published on June 11, and Report #89: “The Dobbs Decision, Support for Abortion, and 2022 Voting” are the latest studies.

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