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Abortion support is the highest it’s been in two decades as challenges mount

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/10/2019 Emily Guskin, Scott Clement
Tina Reilly et al. posing for the camera: FILE PHOTO: Abortion-rights campaigners attend a rally against new restrictions on abortion passed by legislatures in eight states including Alabama and Georgia, in New York City, U.S., May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon/File Photo © Jeenah Moon/Reuters FILE PHOTO: Abortion-rights campaigners attend a rally against new restrictions on abortion passed by legislatures in eight states including Alabama and Georgia, in New York City, U.S., May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon/File Photo

Support for legal abortion stands at its highest level in more than two decades according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, even as numerous states adopt restrictions that challenge the breadth of rights established by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. 

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The Post-ABC poll finds a 60 percent majority who say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, up from 55 percent in a 2013 Post-ABC poll, and tying the record high level of support from 1995. The latest survey finds 36 percent say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, also tying a record low.

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In 2013, a Post-ABC poll found 55 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The increase in support for legal abortion has increased in part because of large growth in support among independent women voters (up 16 points to 71 percent) and Democrats (up 12 points to 77 percent).

A 41 percent plurality of Americans want their own states to avoid making it either harder or easier for women to have access to abortion. Fewer (32 percent) say their states should make it easier and fewer still (24 percent) say their states should make it harder for women to have access to abortion.

Many states have recently passed laws to limit abortion, and some, such as Georgia, have tried to effectively ban it. Many of these restrictions are being challenged and could eventually wind up before the Supreme Court.

Most Americans have circumstantial views of abortion laws — a majority say that abortion should be either legal in most cases (33 percent) or illegal in most cases (22 percent). About 4 in 10 say it should always be legal or illegal, with roughly twice as many who say abortion should be legal in all cases (27 percent) as say it should be illegal (14 percent).

Even within party ranks, allowing or banning abortion in all cases is a minority position. Among Democrats, 77 percent say abortion should be at least mostly legal, but just over 4 in 10 (42 percent) say it should be legal in all cases. Among Republicans, 52 percent say it should be at least mostly illegal, but fewer than a quarter, 22 percent, want it to be illegal in all cases.

Examining annual averages in opinions toward abortion across Post-ABC and Pew Research Center polling since the mid-1990s, support for legal abortion was last this high in Post-ABC polling in 1995, right before the country saw a decrease in the abortion rate. In 2015, the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the abortion rate reached a historic low.

Opposition to abortion was highest in 2010, when 45 percent of Americans said it should be illegal in most or all cases and 52 percent said it should be legal.

Looking ahead to 2020, just over 6 in 10 Americans say abortion is either “one of the single most important issues” in their vote or a “very important issue.” Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say that abortion is an important issue in their vote for president, 71 percent vs. 57 percent. The gender gap on abortion’s importance is nearly twice as large: 73 percent of women say abortion is important to their 2020 vote compared with 46 percent of men.

Asked about President Trump’s handling of the abortion issue, disapproval outpaces approval by 54 percent to 32 percent margin. A majority of Republicans (65 percent) approve of Trump’s efforts on the issue, but that lags his 87 percent overall job rating among fellow partisans. Meanwhile, 85 percent of Democrats disapprove, as do 53 percent of independents.

Opinions on abortion do not differ greatly among people living in states with more or less restrictive laws. In the 30 states where abortion is prohibited at 24 weeks or earlier (except in cases of life or health endangerment), a 57 percent majority say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. And residents of the remaining states with fewer restrictions on abortion are slightly more likely to say abortion should be legal (64 percent).

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The partisan divide on abortion has increased sharply since the 1990s. An October 1995 Post-ABC poll, which found the same 60 percent of Americans saying abortion should be legal as this month’s poll, found Democrats only 15 points more likely than Republicans to say abortion should be mostly or always legal, 64 percent to 49 percent. That gap now is 36 percentage points, 77 percent to 41 percent.

Men and women offer similar opinions on abortion in the latest survey, with 59 percent of men and 62 percent of women saying it should be legal in all or most cases. Women are slightly more likely to say abortion should be legal in all cases, 31 percent compared with 23 percent of men.

Age is another factor, with a larger share of adults under 30 — 72 percent — who say abortion should be legal than those who are older (58 percent of those 30 to 64 and 56 percent of those 65 and older).

There are sharp differences in support for abortion by religious affiliation. White evangelical protestants remain the most united against legal abortion, with 62 percent saying it should be illegal in all or most cases, virtually unchanged from 66 percent in 2013. White Catholics are largely split, with 51 percent saying abortion should be legal, and 46 percent saying it should be illegal, also little changed from 2013. Fully 85 percent of those with no religion say abortion should be legal.

This Washington Post-ABC News poll was conducted by telephone from June 28 through July 1 among a random national sample of 1,008 adults, with 65 percent reached on cellphones and 35 percent on landlines. Results from the full sample have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; the error margin is plus or minus 5.5 percentage points for questions on approval of how Trump is handling abortion and how important the issue is to Americans’ presidential votes.

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