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Trimesters Still Key to U.S. Abortion Views

Trimesters Still Key to U.S. Abortion Views

Story Highlights

  • Six in 10 Americans broadly support abortion rights in first trimester
  • Support shrinks to less than one-third in second trimester, further in third
  • Americans divided on aborting because of Down syndrome

This story is part of a special series on Americans' attitudes toward abortion in 2018.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans' support for the legality of abortion varies sharply when they are asked to evaluate it on a trimester basis, which is consistent with the pattern Gallup has found for more than 20 years. Six in 10 U.S. adults think abortion should generally be legal in the first three months of pregnancy. However, support drops by about half, to 28%, for abortions conducted in the second three months, and by half again, to 13%, in the final three months.

Line graph: Should abortion be legal during the three trimesters? 2018: 60% yes, legal (first trimester); 28% (second); 13% (third).

Current abortion attitudes, from Gallup's May 1-10 Values and Beliefs poll, are similar to the prior update, in 2012, as well as to Gallup's first measure of this question, in 1996.

Men and women have similar support for abortion by trimester. However, as seen in the table at the end of this report, support differs by age, education level and party identification. Young adults, college-educated adults and Democrats are more accepting than their counterparts of abortions in the first and second trimesters, while the differences are slighter with respect to third-trimester abortions.

Americans Back Medically Motivated Abortions in First Trimester

As Gallup reported earlier this week, the vast majority of Americans want abortion to be legally available in all or certain circumstances, even while, in answer to a separate question, they are evenly divided at 48% each in identifying their overall position as "pro-choice" or "pro-life."

But Americans' views on the issue are even more complicated than that. Support for elective abortion depends on the specific reason a woman seeks the procedure. And that, in turn, varies by whether it occurs early or late in the pregnancy.

Gallup examines these distinctions in the new poll by repeating an experiment first conducted 15 years ago. Half of respondents were asked whether abortion should be legal for each of several reasons during the first trimester of pregnancy. The other half were asked about the same reasons in the third trimester. The situations (including a new one this year focusing on Down syndrome) are:

  • when the woman's life is endangered
  • when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest
  • when the child would be born with a life-threatening illness
  • when the child would be born mentally disabled
  • when the child would be born with Down syndrome
  • when the woman does not want the child for any reason

The most widely accepted reason for performing abortions, with little difference in support depending on the timing, is when the woman's life is endangered: 83% think this should be legal in the first trimester and 75% in the third. Majorities also think abortion should be legal in both trimesters if done because the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest, although support falls from 77% in the first trimester to barely half (52%) in the third.

Abortions done because the child would be born with medical problems -- either a life-threatening illness or a mental disability -- receive majority support when done in the first trimester, but less than majority support when occurring in the third.

Americans are divided about terminating a pregnancy in the first trimester when Down syndrome is detected, with 49% in favor; but support drops to 29% for abortions done for this reason in the third trimester. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify Down syndrome as "the most common chromosomal disorder," affecting about one in every 700 babies born in the U.S.

Less than half of Americans support abortions conducted in the first or the third trimester when the woman doesn't want the child "for any reason," although there is a sizable falloff in support for this from the first trimester (45%) to the third (20%).

Bar graph: Support for abortion depends on situation, by trimester, 2018. Top %: 83% say it should be legal when woman's life is endangered.

As with overall support for abortion by trimester, some demographic differences are also evident in these attitudes in the expected direction by age and party ID, in terms of both first- and third-trimester abortions.

Women and men have similar abortion views in most of the circumstances, but men are more supportive when it comes to aborting in the first trimester when the child would be born mentally disabled (62% of men vs. 51% of women say this should be legal in the first trimester), or when the child would be born with Down syndrome (56% vs. 44%).


Bottom Line

Most Americans generally see some reason for abortion to be legal, but far more think it should be legal in the first trimester than in the second or third. This conforms with the actual rate of abortions in the U.S. by trimester. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion statistics, late-trimester abortions are rare -- only 1.3% are conducted later than 20 weeks, whereas 89% are performed within the first 12 weeks.

Importantly, public opinion also mirrors the conceptual framework used in the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision. Under that historic ruling, the interests of the mother are paramount in the first trimester, but the state has an interest in protecting the fetus after viability. In the words of the decision: "For the stage subsequent to viability the State, in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life, may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother."

The wording of Roe v. Wade aligns almost perfectly with where Americans stand on late-term abortions -- keep them legal to save the life of the mother and in cases of rape and incest, but not for other reasons. Where Americans seem to depart from the decision is in supporting certain restrictions on first-term abortions, particularly those performed because of Down syndrome or solely at the woman's discretion.

Roe v. Wade took the power of outlawing abortion out of states' hands, making it legal throughout the country. But its invitation to regulate abortion in ways focused on the health of the mother, as well as to protect the "potentiality of human life" after viability, has enabled states to pass numerous laws limiting how and when abortion can be legally performed. Many of these restrictions are likely consistent with Americans' sensitivities to abortion, but that alignment could change.

Several recently passed laws, including one in Iowa that prohibits abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected (which often occurs at six weeks), are aimed at having the Supreme Court revisit the decision. Any federal ruling that curtails legal abortion in the first trimester could spark significant public resistance.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted May 1-10, 2018, with a random sample of 1,024 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 70% cellphone respondents and 30% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View complete question responses and trends (PDF download).

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

Americans Who Say Abortion Should Generally Be Legal in Each Trimester, by Key Demographic Group
First trimester Second trimester Third trimester
% % %
U.S. adults 60 28 13
Men 60 31 14
Women 60 26 12
18 to 34 66 33 14
35 to 54 63 26 12
55+ 54 27 12
College graduates 72 40 19
Some college 63 22 10
No college 49 24 9
Party ID
Republicans 42 12 6
Independents 60 27 13
Democrats 77 46 18
Gallup, May 1-10, 2018

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