(Original release date: October 24, 2012) According to a new study from Grey Matter Research, American attitudes about abortion are rarely as simple as “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”
Just 28% of American adults believe abortion should be legal in all situations, and even fewer (18%) believe abortion should be outlawed in all situations. A plurality (38%) believes abortion should be legal in some situations but not in others, while 16% admit that they really don’t know just what to believe on this issue.
Grey Matter Research surveyed a demographically representative sample of 1,011 American adults regarding how they feel about abortion and when (or whether) it should be legal or illegal. The study shows a highly complex landscape, where groups that are often positioned as supporting or opposing the legality of abortion often have attitudes that are not so clear-cut.
To start with, groups that are usually seen as opposing abortion frequently do not do so entirely. Just 29% of political conservatives believe abortion should be illegal in all situations. The same is true for 67% of evangelical Christians, and 23% of Roman Catholics.
Similarly, groups that are seen as wanting to keep abortion legal often don’t want it to be legal in all situations. Only 50% of political liberals feel there should be no restrictions on the legality of abortion, along with 51% of atheists and agnostics, and 36% of people who have no religious preference at all.
So when should abortion be legal or not legal? Respondents were given ten scenarios and asked whether abortion should be legal in each one. A majority of Americans want abortion to be legal in six of these scenarios:
- If doctors have determined that the mother’s life is in danger because of the pregnancy – 76%
- If the pregnancy is because of incest – 71%
- If the pregnancy is because of rape, and the mother is 18 or older – 71%
- If the pregnancy is because of rape, and the mother is under 18 years old – 71%
- If doctors have determined that the child will not survive very long after birth – 64%
- If doctors have determined that the child would be born with severe mental or physical defects – 60%
At the same time, only a minority of Americans believe abortion should be legal in the following situations:
- If the mother is under 18 years old and just does not want to have the child – 46%
- If raising the child would be a financial hardship to the mother/parents – 40%
- If the mother just does not want to have the child – 40%
- If the mother wants a child of a different gender – 33%
In the six areas for which a majority of Americans want abortion to be legal, men and women have nearly identical perspectives. In the four areas for which a minority of Americans want abortion to be legal, women are consistently more likely to call for abortion to be legal than are men.
As would be expected, political liberals, moderates, and conservatives have widely divergent views on abortion, with support for legal abortion far more likely to come from liberals than from conservatives in all ten situations. Yet attitudes are not as clear-cut as might be assumed. For example, 44% of liberals do not believe abortion should be legal for gender selection, 38% do not feel it should be legal just because raising the child would be a financial hardship for the mother or parents, and 36% do not think it should be legal if the mother simply does not want to have the child.
At the same time, 67% of conservatives want abortion to be legal if doctors have determined that the mother’s life is in danger, 61% if the pregnancy is because of incest, and 50% if doctors have determined that the child will have severe mental or physical defects.
Attitudes about abortion also vary dramatically by religious perspective. A majority of Catholics support abortion being legal in cases of rape, incest, or the mother’s life being in danger, and they are almost evenly divided in situations where the child will not survive long after birth. Protestants when taken as a whole see things in generally the same way.
Evangelicals, on the other hand, differ sharply. Almost all evangelicals feel abortion should be illegal if the mother simply does not want to have the child, if there is financial hardship, or for gender selection. While a clear majority of evangelicals oppose abortion in all other situations, there is a significant minority (ranging from 18% to 27%, depending on each situation) who feel it should be legal in cases of rape, incest, the mother’s life being in danger, the child being unlikely to survive for long after birth, or significant mental or physical defects.
People from other religious perspectives tend to sit on the other side of the fence on this issue. Among atheists and agnostics, a clear majority call for abortion to be legal in each of the ten scenarios, although the number is as low as 65% who feel it should be legal to have an abortion simply because raising a child would be a financial hardship for the mother or parents.
Among people from non-Christian religions (e.g. Judaism, Buddhism, Islam), a majority want abortion to be legal in all situations, although the number is as low as 51% in situations where it would be used solely for gender selection.
People who express no religious preference at all are closer to the average American’s belief, with a majority supporting legal abortion for cases of rape, incest, danger to the mother’s life, and serious physical or mental defects (around 60 – 65% in each situation), while only around 40% support it being legal for other reasons (financial hardship, gender selection, or simply not wanting to have the child).
In two situations – rape and the mother not wanting to have the child – respondents were specifically asked about adult mothers versus mothers under age 18. In both situations, Americans’ views do not change at all when the mother is a minor. If they believe abortion should be legal or illegal for an adult, it is rare for them to have a different view because the mother is under 18 years old.
Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter Research, noted how much more complex the landscape is than is often portrayed. “We hear all the time about ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice,’ but that’s an extreme over-simplification,” he said. “Instead, most Americans don’t think there should be unfettered access to abortion on demand, but they also don’t think it should be outlawed entirely.”
Also commonly over-simplified, Sellers continued, are the assumptions about who supports or opposes abortion. “There are lots of stereotypes and code words for who is supposed to be pro-choice or pro-life, but each of these subgroups is far from unified in their attitudes. Seven out of ten political conservatives and one out of three evangelicals believe there should be situations in which abortion is legal. At the same time, half of all political liberals and a similar proportion of atheists and agnostics do not believe abortion should be legal in all situations. The abortion debate is far more complex than right-versus-left or religious-versus-irreligious, which is how it’s too often portrayed. There are plenty of Americans who don’t fit into the neat little labels that have been created for them.”
The study was conducted by Grey Matter Research, a research and consumer insights company located in Phoenix, Arizona. The sample of 1,011 adults is accurate to within ±3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level with a 50 percent response distribution.
The study was conducted in all 50 states. Respondents’ age, education, household income, geography, racial/ethnic background, and gender were carefully tracked to ensure appropriate representation and accuracy.