A reality check on attitudes toward abortion

May 23, 2019
Last week, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed the country's strictest anti-abortion legislation into law, making abortion illegal even in cases of rape or incest - with sentences of up to 99 years in prison for abortion providers. Opponents argue that the law is unconstitutional, while its supporters have expressed hope that the case will go to the Supreme Court and be used to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The media often relies on overly simplistic pro-choice and pro-life labels. The reality is that those labels aren't fully predictive of opinions toward specific abortion laws - and data has consistently shown a majority of Americans favor a woman's right to choose.

Don't Rely on Labels
In polling conducted in May 2018, Gallup found that equal percentages of Americans -  48% each  - identify themselves as either pro-choice or pro-life. And Gallup polling over the last 20 years has largely shown similar shares of Americans embracing these terms.

However, these labels lose utility - especially the pro-life moniker - when voters are faced with more specific situations. 

Pew Research Center  poll from September 2018 found that nearly 60% of Americans (58%) say abortion should always or mostly be legal, compared with 37% who say it should always or mostly be illegal. And respondents in the May Gallup survey overwhelmingly said that abortion should be legal in cases where the woman's life is endangered (83%) or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest (77%). In fact, even solid majorities of those who identify as pro-life believe abortions should be legal in these instances, at 71% and 57% respectively.
This data demonstrates that when polling for attitudes on abortion, merely asking if a person is pro-life or pro-choice is too simplistic and does not get to the reality of the issue. If pollsters only ask people to pick between these two labels, they will get results different from asking for the respondent's opinion on factors like pregnancy term, origin of the pregnancy, or reason for termination.
Legislation being passed in conservative states is not even reflective of the most conservative elements of those state electorates
Findings from Data for Progress show that in no state does banning abortion have the support of even one-quarter of the electorate. Such a policy is a minority opinion in every state in the country. Yes, even in Alabama.

More granular data in Alabama, the state that passed the most restrictive law since Roe v. Wade, demonstrates just how far out of step the legislature is with even conservative-minded voters. 

Polling conducted by ALG Research for Planned Parenthood Southeast last year showed that banning abortion without exceptions for rape and incest is overwhelmingly unpopular in Alabama. Even among conservative-leaning subgroups like Republicans, evangelicals, and those who attend church at least once a week, most voters back abortion access under certain circumstances - and a strong majority oppose the provisions in the Alabama law that do not allow for abortions in cases of rape and incest.

Source: ALG Research Poll Conducted for Planned Parenthood Southeast
The passage of anti-abortion laws by state governments this year has been used to judge the residents of those states, but the truth is that clear majorities support a woman's right to safe and legal abortion. And even when looking at voters who identify as pro-life and subgroups of conservative voters in the Deep South, most people support the right to abortion to protect the life of the woman and in cases of rape and incest.