Americans remain divided on the abortion issue, with 47 percent of U.S. adults describing their views as “pro-choice” and 46 percent as “pro-life,” continuing a pattern seen since 2010.
These results are based on Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs survey, conducted May 8-11. Gallup’s trend on this question stretches back to 1995, when Americans tilted significantly more toward the pro-choice label. The balance generally remained more in the pro-choice direction until 2009 when for the first time more Americans identified as pro-life than pro-choice. Since then, these attitudes have fluctuated some, but remain roughly split.
Abortion Views Are Most Unified in the East
Americans’ identification with the two abortion politics labels differs somewhat by gender and age, with women and 18- to 34-year olds tilting pro-choice, and men and Americans aged 55 and older tilting pro-life. Middle-aged adults are evenly split on the issue.
Regionally, Easterners are the most unified, with 59% calling themselves pro-choice, whereas in all other regions, no more than 50 percent identify with either label. However, Southerners lean toward the pro-life position (49 percent to 41 percent), while those in the Midwest and West are about evenly split.
By far the biggest differences in these views are political, with over two-thirds of Republicans calling themselves pro-life and about as many Democrats identifying as pro-choice. Independents fall squarely in the middle.
The Moderate Middle Position Down to 50 Percent
A second long-term Gallup trend, this one measuring Americans’ views on the extent to which abortion should be legal, finds 50 percent saying abortion should be “legal only under certain circumstances,” or in other words, favoring limited abortion rights. This stance has prevailed since 1975. However, a combined 49 percent of Americans takes a more hardline position, including 28 percent saying abortion should be legal in all circumstances and 21 percent believing it should be illegal in all circumstances.
Support for the strong anti-abortion rights position has hovered around 20 percent since 2011, just below the record-high 23 percent seen in 2009. Support for strong pro-abortion rights is a notch below the highest levels seen from 1990 to 1995 when it consistently exceeded 30 percent, but support is up from four to five years ago when it had dipped into the low 20s.
The abortion issue seemingly has been sidelined over the past several election cycles as a series of weighty issues – including the Iraq War, the economy, and healthcare reform — have dominated political debate. It is thus remarkable that the percentage of voters saying a candidate’s position on abortion is paramount to their vote has not only remained constant, but has also increased slightly.
Nineteen percent of U.S. registered voters currently say candidates for major offices must share their views on abortion to get their vote. This number slightly eclipses the 16 percent to 17 percent seen since 2004 and is significantly higher than the 13 percent to 14 percent that Gallup recorded between 1992 and 2000. Only once, in May 2001, was the figure higher, at 21 percent.
Gallup finds more pro-life voters than pro-choice voters saying they will only back candidates who share their views, 24 percent vs. 16 percent. Thus, the pro-life side has more intensity on the issue. However, because there are more pro-choice than pro-life registered voters (50 percent to 44 percent), this equates to 11% of all registered voters saying they will only vote for pro-life candidates and 8 percent saying they will only vote for pro-choice candidates – not a great advantage or disadvantage for either side.
U.S. public opinion on abortion has displayed great stability in recent years, with Americans dividing about evenly into the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” camps. Separately, Gallup finds roughly half of Americans retain a nuanced view about the legality of abortion, saying it should be legal only in certain cases. However, the percentages on the extremes – those favoring total legality or illegality – have crept up, presumably to the delight of their respective comrades in the Republican and Democratic parties.
In January, Jeremy W. Peters in a New York Times article described abortion as an “unexpectedly animating issue in the 2014 midterm elections,” and referred back to the reported success that abortion rights groups had in 2012, both with modeling and targeting “women’s health” voters. Indeed, Gallup finds that a quarter of Republican voters (24 percent) and 19 percent of Democratic voters claim they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion, making these voters prime targets for party turnout efforts. While their impact could result in a draw on the abortion issue, it is a battle neither party can afford to ignore.