Most voters don’t want unlimited abortion. But they don’t trust their states to set restrictions.
One year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and allowed states to make their own laws restricting abortion, most polls find a majority of Americans opposed to the Dobbs decision. At the same time, a large majority in a poll released in April also said that abortion should either be banned or limited to the first three months of pregnancy—a restriction that was not possible until Roe was overturned.
Regardless of public attitudes toward the Dobbs decision, it did seem to have an effect on the number of abortions performed in the United States. The Society of Family Planning, a pro-choice group, estimated that the number of abortions in the United States per month fell by about 6 percent (an average decline of 5,377 abortions each month) in the six months after the Dobbs decision.
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll from April found that 59 percent of all U.S. adults opposed the Dobbs decision, but 66 percent said that abortion should be allowed “at most within the first three months” of a pregnancy. The latter figure does not necessarily indicate support for a total ban, however, since 82 percent said abortion should be legal “at any time” to protect the health of the mother, and 70 percent said it should be legal at any time in cases of rape or incest. The poll of 1,291 adults also found that 64 percent opposed a ban on “the use of a prescription pill or a series of pills to end a pregnancy.”
Polls taken between September 2021 and May 2023 found an average of 44 percent of all Americans in support of a 15-week ban on abortion, with a matching 44 percent opposed to such a ban.
Dobbs did not dictate abortion policy at any level, but in overturning Roe after nearly 50 years, the court ruling did restore the right of states to set their own abortion policies. During the past year, dozens of states have enacted restrictions on abortion, and in 14 states abortion is now banned entirely or allowed only in cases of rape or incest. In addition, abortion is now banned after six weeks of pregnancy in Georgia, after 12 weeks in Nebraska and after 15 weeks in Arizona and Florida.
An analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight of polls taken between September 2021 and May 2023 found an average of 44 percent of all Americans in support of a 15-week ban on abortion, with a matching 44 percent opposed to such a ban. An average of 34 percent supported a six-week ban, with 54 percent opposed.
Catholics Mirror the General Population
The NPR poll did not include a breakdown by religious group, but other polls have found that U.S. Catholics come close to mirroring the overall population in their views of abortion. A Gallup poll from February found that 46 percent of U.S. adults wanted abortion laws in the United States to be “less strict,” up from 30 percent who felt that way in January 2022, before the Dobbs decision. Only 15 percent said they wanted abortion laws to be “stricter.” Among Catholics, 38 percent said in February that they wanted less strict abortion laws, up from 22 percent early last year; and 15 percent wanted stricter laws, an identical share to the U.S. population overall.
A Pew Research Center poll from April found that 62 percent of all adult Americans, and 61 percent of adult U.S. Catholics, agreed that abortion should be legal in most or all cases; 36 percent of all Americans and 38 percent of Catholics said abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.
And in February, a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found 64 percent of adult Americans agreeing that abortion should be legal “in most or all cases.” This was up from 55 percent in 2010. Over the same period, the share of Americans saying that abortion should always be illegal dropped from 15 percent to 7 percent. In the latest poll, 62 percent of white Catholics and 61 percent of Hispanic Catholics said abortion should be legal in most or all cases; only 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement, but 85 percent of those not affiliated with a religion agreed. (Based on its polling, P.R.R.I. estimated that there are only seven states where less than half of residents say abortion should be legal in most or all cases: Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah.)
Dobbs did not dictate abortion policy at any level, but in overturning Roe after nearly 50 years, the court ruling did restore the right of states to set their own abortion policies.
U.S. Catholics also showed similarities with the general population on whether the abortion drug mifepristone should remain legal and available. A federal judge in Texas ruled on April 7 that the Food and Drug Administration failed to properly vet mifepristone, a drug used in medication abortions in the United States since 2000, but the Supreme Court restored F.D.A. approval while the decision from Texas is being appealed. In a Pew survey from April, 53 percent of all U.S. adults said that “medication abortion” should be legal in their state, while 22 percent said it should be illegal. Among Catholics, 46 percent said it should be legal in their state and 26 percent said it should be illegal. (In 2020, the most recent year with available data, medication abortions accounted for 53 percent of all facility-based abortions in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and reported by Pew.)
Little Confidence in State Legislatures
Returning abortion policy to the states may have corrected an overreach by the Supreme Court in Roe, but it has raised new concerns about the legitimacy and accountability of state government. An NPR/Ipsos poll from January found that 58 percent of U.S. adults believed that legislators in their state decided abortion policy based on “what their donors and political base wants,” with 36 percent saying that lawmakers passed abortion laws based on “what the majority of the state public wants.” (Those were the only two options; respondents were not asked whether, for example, legislators made decisions on the basis of personal conscience.) But majorities said the same about seven other issues, including taxes, education, guns and public health, suggesting a broad disconnect from state government—perhaps because so many state legislators in gerrymandered districts face no opposition from candidates of another party.
The same poll found that 69 percent favored “your state using a ballot measure or voter referendum to decide abortion rights at the state level.” Support for the referendum process cut across party lines and included 65 percent of Republicans, even though several Republican-controlled states have passed or are considering changes to make it more difficult to decide abortion policy through referendums. In Ohio, for example, voters will decide in August whether to raise the threshold for passing state constitutional amendments from 50 percent to 60 percent; and in November they will likely vote on just such an amendment to guarantee a right to abortion. Last year saw ballot-question defeats for the pro-life movement in Kansas and other states, and the NPR/Ipsos poll found that 54 percent of voters nationwide would vote “in favor of abortion legality” in their state, compared with 27 percent who would vote against abortion legality.
Fifty-three percent favored a national law preserving “a right to abortion,” and another 12 percent favored a national law “banning abortion”; only 32 percent saying that abortion policy should be left to the states.
The lack of confidence in state legislatures may explain the results of a P.R.R.I. survey from last June, right after the Dobbs decision was handed down. In that poll, 53 percent of U.S. adults favored a national law preserving “a right to abortion,” and another 12 percent favored a national law “banning abortion,” with only 32 percent (but 54 percent of Republicans) saying that abortion policy should be left to the states. There were similar results among both white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics; white evangelical Protestants were the only religious group in which a majority said abortion law should be left to the states.
Abortion is one of the strongest matters of disagreement between the country’s two major political parties, and party affiliation mostly lines up with voters’ views on the issue. Still, 14 percent of Democrats in the spring NPR poll said they “mostly” opposed “abortion rights,” while 33 percent of Republicans said they were mostly supportive. (Independents broke 62-35 as mostly supportive of abortion rights.)
A P.R.R.I. analysis from April produced similar numbers. It also found that 29 percent of pro-life Democrats were Hispanic Catholics, though that group accounted for only 13 percent of Democrats overall. Another 21 percent of pro-life Democrats were Black Protestants, though they were only 15 percent of Democrats overall. Among white Catholics, views on abortion lined up more closely with party affiliation: They accounted for 8 percent of pro-life Democrats and 10 percent of Democrats overall. At the same time, according to P.R.R.I.’s data, white Catholics accounted for 21 percent of pro-choice Republicans and 18 percent of Republicans overall.