A common assumption of the debate around overturning Roe v. Wade, which established the constitutional right to abortion in 1973, is that there are just two sides to it. On one side, the thinking goes, are those who think abortion should be legal and that Roe should be upheld, while on the other side are those who think abortion should be illegal and that Roe should be overturned.
Indeed, the Public Religion Research Institute, where I’m the research director, surveyed more than 5,000 Americans back in March on their views on abortion, and we found that 64 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 35 percent said abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.1
These results are consistent with other polls on the topic — a majority of Americans generally support abortion being legal, although the exact share varies depending on how questions are phrased and which answer options are provided. However, perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, 43 percent of those who thought abortion should be illegal in most or all cases opposed overturning Roe, while 26 percent of those who thought abortion should be legal in most or all cases supported overturning Roe.
A common reaction to this type of misalignment in opinions is that survey respondents are wrong. Indeed, when discussing this finding with some of my highly informed friends, their first instinct was that people are not intelligent or not paying attention. As an opinion researcher, I have seen that reaction to my work more times than I can count.
It’s possible that a respondent could see “Roe v. Wade” and hastily click “oppose,” thinking that was the correct answer for opposing abortion, and vice-versa for those who support abortion. And even though the survey question wording defines Roe v. Wade as “the 1973 Supreme Court decision that affirmed a constitutional right to abortion,” there could be some misunderstanding of what it means to “overturn” a case. But assuming this misalignment all stems from a lack of intelligence or understanding fails to acknowledge that many people do hold truly nuanced opinions on complex issues like abortion and Roe.
In fact, based on an analysis of his writings, statements and prior decisions, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is likely one of those people — he appears to think abortion should be illegal but opposes overturning Roe. No one would call Roberts uninformed. Granted, most Americans are not as well-informed as Roberts, nor do they place the importance on Supreme Court precedent that Roberts does. But investigating what we do know about people who hold seemingly inconsistent views on abortion and overturning Roe reveals where cross pressures could result in conflicting views.
As is true of most abortion-related public opinion, there are not large gender differences; women and men are equally likely to hold cross-pressured opinions. There are, however, clear patterns by race, age and education.
Black (39 percent) and Hispanic (36 percent) Americans, for instance, were more likely to fall into this cross-pressured category than white (28 percent), Asian or Pacific Islander (28 percent) or multiracial Americans (21 percent). By age, younger Americans — particularly those between ages 30 and 49 — were more likely to report cross-pressured views (37 percent) than other age groups, as were parents of children under 18 (38 percent) compared to non-parents (28 percent). Finally, 4 in 10 Americans with a high school level education or less were in this category, which was much smaller than the share with more formal education (31 percent some college education; 19 percent college degree or higher).
More Republicans (36 percent) than Democrats (26 percent) fell into this conflicted category. And given that most Republicans think that abortion should be illegal, more fell into the illegal-but-don’t-overturn category (24 percent); given that most Democrats think abortion should be legal, meanwhile, more fell into the legal-but-overturn category (18 percent).
Abortion is an issue with distinct religious implications, so unsurprisingly quite a few Christian groups have particularly high shares that fall into this cross-pressured category. When we break down the two cross-pressured categories, more white evangelical Protestants, Hispanic Protestants and Hispanic Catholics fell into the illegal-but-don’t-overturn category than the legal-but-overturn category, while more Black Protestants and non-Christian religious Americans fell into the legal-but-overturn category. At least 35 percent of each of these groups fell into the cross-pressured category.
All of this taken together strongly suggests that the people most likely to be cross-pressured on abortion were Black, Hispanic, parents, those between the ages of 30 and 49, those with a high school education, Republican or religious.
Lower education levels could also explain some of what we see — consider that in the same survey, 61 percent of those with a high school education or less said they did not know what will happen in their state if Roe is overturned. Those with some college (47 percent) and a college degree or higher (37 percent) were much less likely to say they’re not sure.
At the same time, even though Republicans and Christians are generally associated with anti-abortion opinions, substantial shares of these groups said that they personally think abortion should be illegal but don’t want Roe overturned. That could be for reasons similar to Roberts, or maybe they don’t want to leave everything up to the states. Then again, it could be evidence of simply accepting the status quo — a Pew Research Center poll conducted in the same time frame as PRRI’s found that only 36 percent of Americans had given much thought to the issue.
Of course, some of these dynamics could shift in the coming weeks and months if Roe is, in fact, overturned in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case. What will not change, however, is that opinion about abortion and Roe v. Wade is complex and nuanced. Using only one survey question to look at the issue is a mistake; views on abortion cannot be reduced to a simple legal/illegal framework, even when it comes to Roe. The answers simply might not mean what you think they mean.
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