There have been many legal developments on the abortion issue in the U.S. over the past year, but have long-standing divisions in public opinion changed at all? "This is one topic that just hasn't moved as much as almost everything else in the ... landscape of polling that we do," says Lydia Saad, Gallup's director of U.S. social research.
Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.
Mohamed Younis 00:07
I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we take a look at one of the most divisive issues in American politics and how it's once again come into national focus: a woman's right to have an abortion. Lydia Saad is Gallup's Director of U.S. Social Research and a frequent offender here on the podcast. Lydia, it's so great to have you back.
Lydia Saad 00:26
Yeah, I'm back to cause trouble!
Mohamed Younis 00:27
As always. We've been tracking attitudes on abortion for a really long time at Gallup. Tell us about some of the shifts we've seen over the decades.
Lydia Saad 00:36
That's usually a topic that brings out the interesting findings that we have over time, but on abortion, you know, the interesting thing is always the consistency of attitudes over time. This is a, one, one topic that just hasn't moved as much as almost everything else in the sort of civil rights, social views landscape of polling that we do on everything from, you know, the women's movement, the civil rights movement for blacks, for LGBT, legalization of marijuana. You know, we've seen evolutionary change on all of those issues over the past half century or a quarter century or decade.
Lydia Saad 01:13
Meanwhile, abortion views are just kind of steady, steady, steady. Little, little shifts that are, you know, we could sit and talk about, but more wobbling than really systemic change. But what's interesting is the changes beneath the surface. So we have our basic question about how -- to what extent should abortion be legal -- under any circumstances, certain circumstances or illegal in all circumstances? And we've just seen consistently the vast majority of Americans say, take that middle position: legal only under certain circumstances -- between 50%-60% have taken that position consistently. Whereas about a third, a quarter to a third say it should be legal in all circumstances; and less than a quarter say it should be illegal in all circumstances.
Lydia Saad 02:02
What's changed is that Democrats and Republicans have become more polarized on the issue, but they kind of cancel each other out. So since -- we started polling on this in the 1970s, but certainly we've seen it even in just, in the last two decades, Democrats have grown more likely to think abortion should be legal in all circumstances; Republicans more likely to think it should become illegal in all circumstances. And again, sort of canceling each other out. So you have to look below the surface to see change on abortion. And even at that level, it's not super dramatic, but that's where the action is.
Mohamed Younis 02:40
Is it because of the, kind of these attitudes around abortion that it's become such a go-to political flashpoint in American politics? It's always struck me how it's a topic that really serves its purpose politically for both parties and has really remained a top focus for them. You think it's gone away, and then it comes right back. Is it because there hasn't been a lot of change? Because all the other issues you mentioned, there has been like astronomical change in Americans' attitudes about those issues and more. But again, this is someplace we don't see that change. So is that why it kind of holds on?
Lydia Saad 03:18
Well, so just, first of all, by definition, the reason we consider it a contentious issue is because the public is kind of split 50-50 on it -- whether they call themselves pro-choice or pro-life; whether they think it's morally acceptable or morally wrong. Those are both things we track every year and have been for at least a couple of decades. And that contrasts with all sorts of other issues that we measure where you have solid majorities of Americans in agreement on one side of an issue or another. For instance, in favor of the death penalty, not in favor of cloning humans; you know, in favor of, of divorce, not in favor of polygamy. So there are issues, social issues that there's great consensus on. Then there are some issues where there's sort of like more of a marginal consensus. But there's a, there are a handful of issues that the public is really divided on, and abortion is one of those.
Lydia Saad 04:09
And the reason people are so divided, and the reason I believe this issue hasn't changed, attitudes haven't changed over time is all those other issues that we talked about that evolutionary change, there is a clear battle between one group that's on the vanguard of society, championing another person's rights -- another group of people's rights -- and maybe a reactionary groups standing against those rights. But with abortion, you have two groups, each focused on different humans' rights. The pro-choice side is focused on the woman's rights, and the pro-life side is focused on the rights of the fetus or the unborn child. And so with those other movements, you have people pushing against a wall of opposition to someone's rights.
Lydia Saad 04:55
But here you have two people pushing against different walls. You have two groups just talking completely past each other about completely different issues. They're fighting over different things. And if you look at the pictures of abortion protests, you have one group of people holding up signs fighting for women's most, you know, personal and momentous healthcare rights, right? And the other side is fighting against what they believe to be murder. And you're just not going to get a lot of crossover there. It's, these are worldviews that are just somehow baked into people's psyche, and they, these differences have persisted over time. So that's why attitudes haven't changed on this issue the way they have with other issues, and why it is so contentious.
Mohamed Younis 05:40
That's such a really profound difference to point out, Lydia. That's really a powerful way to think about how this issue really is different than so many of the others we mentioned, and we tend to think about, in terms of social attitudes in America. Of course, we have an anniversary coming up for a really infamous case that tried to deal with this moral, you know, conundrum and conflict, and it's Roe v. Wade. Have we asked Americans about their own attitudes about Roe v. Wade? Or do we have any sense of whether or not people actually know what that is and why they support it?
Lydia Saad 06:18
Sure. So we do ask. We have a very straightforward question: "Would you like to see the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe versus Wade decision concerning abortion, or not?" So, you know, true to Gallup, we have a very pure, simple question that you're not telling people what Roe v. Wade means per se, or exactly how it was decided. Just this decision, that the name would certainly be very familiar to most people -- do you want to see that decision overturned or not? And time and again, we have almost a 2-1 opposition to overturning Roe v. Wade. In our most recent poll, in 2021, it was 58% said "No" to overturning, and, and 32% said Yes. Those, again, those attitudes have not changed since we started that trend in 1989. You know, what people think Roe v. Wade means and is, is a whole different question. But those attitudes really are consistent -- that opposition to overturning Roe v. Wade is consistent with people's attitudes about the policies that stem from Roe v. Wade.
Lydia Saad 07:19
So what I mean by that is Roe v. Wade, as it was decided, was, hinged on viability as the point at which the state, the government has an interest in protecting the life of the unborn. Prior to that, they say the state has, there can be no restrictions on abortion. And that's, you know, what overlaid all the state laws and made abortion legal because you could not block abortions in the first trimester or, or certainly before viability, which goes into the second trimester. So it's only in the third trimester, the court says that there can be this weighing of interests of the mother and the unborn. And that's where a lot of the legal battles have happened over the past many decades.
Lydia Saad 08:07
But now what we're seeing are these challenges to that first-trimester protection of abortion, where states, as you know, are, are talking about fetal heartbeat or pushing back the definition of viability. So the public really likes this, this framework. If Americans approve on balance of abortion in the first trimester, they disapprove in the second and third trimester. So pro-choice folks aren't super happy with that. Super pro-life folks aren't super happy with that. But that broad middle group of Americans we talked about at the very beginning -- that thinks abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances -- really likes that compromise.
Mohamed Younis 08:47
It's such a brilliant breakdown, of not only Roe v. Wade, but how public opinion cross-connects or confirms their support of the decision. Another thing the public really focuses on from time to time in connection with abortion is the Supreme Court and confidence or approval of the Supreme Court. Has that changed a lot over time?
Lydia Saad 09:10
Well, typically, the Supreme Court is the best-rated branch of government, the federal government. And it still is today, but we have, the court has become less insulated from all of the partisan rancor that's going on. And the last couple of years in particular, it's seen its approval rating decline. So just in our latest poll in the fall, it was down to 40%. And so, that's, you know, by 2 percentage points, the lowest rating it's had. And this was, you know, conducted shortly after the court declined to block that controversial Texas abortion law. So that certainly may have been a factor in that, in that lower approval rating.
Lydia Saad 09:58
You know, that was a very complicated decision. But I think the message coming out of it to the public was clear: that the court has, you know, taken an unusually, you know, crossed a line basically in allowing a policy that breaks that first-trimester barrier, in terms of making abortion more difficult. You know, for the, for the last decade, the pro-life side was more in ascendance in terms of power because they were fighting things that were popular. I mean, they were, they were, their, their positions were popular, in terms of fighting things like partial-birth abortion and, you know, late-term abortion that the public agrees should not be broadly legal. But now they have decided it's time to take on Roe v. Wade and challenge these first-term abortion limits. And I think they're going to find quite a strong public pushback on that.
Mohamed Younis 10:57
That's another awesome distinction. Because what many of these lawsuits are now proposing, as you point out, is actually flying in the face of public opinion. Obviously, public opinion doesn't rule in court, but this is the -- one area, constitutional law, where public opinion isn't supposed to be important, but it becomes the focus of the country very quickly when the court makes a decision that has this large scale of an impact on people's lives. Lately, as in like the last week, we asked Americans one of the questions we've asked a lot about abortion -- and we see the difference in perceptions in terms of the kind of change people want to see, when it comes to changing abortion laws. Can you take us through that?
Lydia Saad 11:40
Yeah. So this is, this is a fresh off the press that we have our annual January update of Americans' satisfaction with abortion laws in the country. That's the way we asked the question amongst all other issues in the public sphere. But one of those we ask about is abortion. And so we find overall, the percentage of Americans who are satisfied versus dissatisfied with abortion laws -- now only about a quarter are satisfied. Most of the rest say they're, they're dissatisfied. And then we follow up those who are dissatisfied and say, "Are you dissatisfied because you want the laws on abortion to be stricter or less strict?" And this year, for the first time ever, going -- in our polling going back to 2001, we found people who are dissatisfied with abortion laws are more dissatisfied because they want them to be less strict rather than more strict.
Lydia Saad 12:33
So that flip is telling you that there's been a tipping point in terms of policy -- that it's pushed too far in one direction, and now we have people who favor abortion rights saying things have gone too far. So that, you know, that could clearly have political implications, in terms of activating the vote and pay attention to the Supreme Court and think more about Supreme Court justices and all those things that we saw really a couple of decades ago too, when abortion was much more in the news than it is today.
Mohamed Younis 13:03
All right, that's Lydia Saad, Gallup's Director of Social Research. Thanks for being with us.
Lydia Saad 13:08
Mohamed Younis 13:15
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for "The Gallup Podcast" wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to news.gallup.com or follow us on Twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.