Yesterday in the Tennessee state senate, legislators held a hearing on an amendment to ban abortion in the state. Once “a viable pregnancy is presumed to exist or has been confirmed,” women would be banned from getting abortions. They explicitly discussed what’s the best strategy to get to the Supreme Court and win.
This amendment goes even further than the so-called heartbeat bills that ban abortion at six weeks—or two weeks after a woman misses her period. The senators debated whether to add this even more stringent ban to the six-week abortion ban.
“Most women don’t realize they’re pregnant until seven weeks or so, and women skip periods if they’re sick or if they’re traveling or if they’re irregular or if they’re on certain medications,” says Freda Levenson, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio. “Not everyone’s period is like clockwork, and two weeks late is not that late so they may not think they’re pregnant.” The heartbeat bills were first written in Ohio in 2011, and then-Governor John Kasich vetoed the bills twice. But other Republican-run states had already begun copying them. A heartbeat bill passed earlier this year in Ohio, and the ACLU has since won a preliminary injunction keeping it from going into effect in federal court.
But there’s a disconnect between the agendas pushed by these state legislators and public opinion. Most Americans still think that abortion should be legal in most cases.
A survey released today by the Public Religion Research Institute asked more than 40,000 Americans what they think about abortion in telephone interviews, including cellphone interviews. The majority, 54 percent, believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 40 percent of Americans think abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. By polling so many people (between 20 and 40 times the usual number of respondents in a national poll), the PRRI was able to get data for every single state, and in none of them do more than a quarter of respondents think that abortion should be illegal in all cases. The outright abortion bans enacted and temporarily stayed in Alabama and Missouri, and currently under consideration in Tennessee, are completely at odds with public sentiment in those states.
Since 2014, when PRRI conducted a similar survey, opinions on abortion have remained steady with 55 percent of Americans believing abortion should be legal in most or all cases.
The interviews for the survey released today were conducted from March to December of last year.
The legality of abortion is a core value, says Natalie Jackson, PRRI’s director of research. “That doesn’t really shift a lot.”
Though most Americans remain supportive of abortion’s legality, the partisan divide has increased. Democrats have become more favorable to abortion at 70 percent, but only 34 percent of Republicans support it. The spread between the two parties has increased from 28 points in 2014 to 36 points now.
“Statistically speaking, [the growing gap] is significant,” Jackson says. “There is evidence the parties are polarizing.” But within the parties, she added, there is still a diversity of opinion: For example, 54 percent of liberal Republicans support abortion legality. “They are polarizing but they’re still not monolithic.”
Public sentiment notwithstanding, the anti-choice movement has made significant gains, especially at the state legislature level. Across the board, Republicans have been pushing through anti-choice legislation, but because Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, Republicans have until recently eschewed outright abortion bans, instead going for legislation that falls just short (but increasingly close) to that. Roe requires that abortion be legal up until the point of viability. The recent so-called heartbeat bills are a far cry from meeting this standard. At six weeks, Levenson says, any heartbeat that can be detected in the embryo is pre-cardiac tissue—not a beating heart.
“They figure out all kinds of ways to make it harder to get abortions,” Levenson says. “To make them embarrassing or unaffordable or logistically impossible for women or put other kinds of restrictions for method for abortion.” Levenson has kept a running total for months of the various types of legislation Ohio legislators have attempted to use to eliminate access to abortion, but now says there are so many she doesn’t think she can quantify them.
According to National Communications Director Kristin Ford for NARAL Pro-Choice America, what’s happening in Ohio and other states didn’t happen overnight.
“This has been a gradual systematic strategic campaign by opponents of abortion access for decades,” Ford says. “They turned the heat up in an alarming manner since [President] Trump took office.” Despite Trump’s spotty anti-choice record, he did appoint the right judges for anti-abortion advocates, and the anti-choice movement embraced him. “There was this sort of marriage of convenience between Trump and the anti-choice movement,” Ford says.
None of these abortion bans match the public opinion in states—even in the states that are least supportive of abortion, fewer than one in four are in favor of outright bans. “There’s an apparent disconnect between state legislatures and their constituents,” Levenson says. Like Ohio, many of the states with these outright bans are gerrymandered, so Republicans don’t aim for the center anymore. “[Republicans] know if their district has been gerrymandered, they can forget all their Democrats in the district and just aim their message at the Republicans at the right and not to the center.”
But even as the proposed bills become more extreme and anti-choice, Americans—even among the most divided groups—aren’t becoming more anti-choice. Among the ethnic groups interviewed in the PRRI survey, Hispanics were some of the most divided—largely by place of birth. The majority of Hispanics born in the United States believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, but only a third of Hispanics born outside the U.S. say the same. Catholics are also very divided on the issue: 48 percent support legality in most or all cases and 46 percent oppose legality in most or all cases. On the other hand, Jews and Unitarian Universalists heavily favor abortion legality. Unsurprisingly, white evangelical Protestants and other conservative Christians are the most opposed to abortion legality, and given their concentration in the South, that region is also the most opposed.
PRRI’s survey also indicates that a few things remain constant: Gender does not seem to be a driving factor, though party or religious affiliation is. Men support abortion legality at 52 percent and women support abortion at 55 percent.
Young people were most likely to self-report a change in opinion—usually becoming more supportive—likely because the issue becomes more salient to young Americans over time, PRRI’s director of research Jackson explains.
People who know someone who has had an abortion are also more likely to favor abortion legality. “[People are] able to be more compassionate toward someone who needs to make that decision,” says Jackson. “The proximity makes it more of a realistic thing. It’s easy to demonize someone or something you have no experience with, it’s much more difficult once you’ve seen the human side of it.”
Many Americans also believe that government programs should provide funding for the procedure. Of people who think that abortion should be legal, 87 percent think government health insurance programs for low-income women, like Medicaid, should cover contraception, and 69 percent think they should cover abortion costs. On the other hand, among those who think abortion should be illegal, 66 percent said that such government programs should cover the costs of contraception, but only 19 percent think they should cover the cost of abortions. The Hyde Amendment prevents the federal government from providing funding for the procedure, but private nonprofit abortion funds have sprung up all over the country to fill in the gap. States also have the ability to help fund the cost of abortions and other reproductive health care. Nonetheless, the Hyde Amendment makes it harder for marginalized groups, such as women of color, to get the care they need—even as it’s been shown that these groups of people are historically excluded from these systems.
Though the PRRI survey indicates that the majority of Americans favor abortion legality, other surveys with small sample sizes have indicated higher levels of support. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 71 percent of voters indicated they opposed overturning Roe. Another poll, conducted by Avalanche Strategy, of just under 1,000 voters, also indicated that 7 in 10 Americans support access to abortion.
The Avalanche poll also identified a group of voters it called “freedom first”—and that group is helping to change NARAL’s messaging. The poll turned up some people who are personally against abortion, but do not want government making that decision for them or anyone else. Personal freedom, for these voters, trumps other concerns.
In Avalanche’s polling, 29 percent of voters are personally opposed to abortion, but don’t think that the government should make that decision for the pregnant person. This 29 percent “freedom first” cohort is behind NARAL’s change in messaging.
As a recent Vice piece documented, NARAL has de-emphasized the term “abortion rights” and is now invoking “reproductive freedom” to embrace the “freedom first” cohort, while still talking about abortion access and rights. “Reproductive freedom” is a term that polls well with moderates and independents.
“There’s an assumption that if you cater messaging to people in the middle of the electorate, that requires watering down or diluting your message. But the idea of government infringing on personal freedom, such as making the decision to be a parent, is really persuasive and animating to both pro-choice and the freedom first cohort of voters,” Ford says. These results “allow us as advocates for abortion to broaden our outreach without diluting our messaging.”
PRRI’s Jackson thinks the differences between the polls may be because of how the polls were conducted. Avalanche’s poll invited people to use their own words to describe their opinion on abortion and focused on perspectives and emotions on the issue. PRRI instead asked people more direct questions with yes-or-no answers.
NARAL’s change in messaging comes on the heels of Planned Parenthood’s ousting their president after she was seen as not being political enough—not focusing sufficiently on advocacy for reproductive health access. It’s another indication that, as NARAL’s change in messaging suggests, advocates believe that reproductive freedom is more endangered now than at any time since the Roe ruling.
“In some states, the bills don’t even include exceptions for women who experience rape or incest and again I think it’s illustrative of just how extreme the [anti-choice] movement is,” says Ford.
Among those bills, Levenson says, there’s one in the Ohio pipeline that would require fetal burial after an abortion, raising the costs of the procedure. There are only seven clinics left in Ohio, and in Missouri there’s just one after the clinics struggled to meet new requirements from the legislature.
PRRI’s survey shows that just one in five Americans say abortion is a deal-breaker for them with a candidate. Though more Republicans take this view than Democrats, most voters are not single-issue abortion voters. But public opinion is hardly the only factor for legislators—if it’s a factor at all. And the anti-choice movement seems to maintain sufficient levels of support to enable state legislators to continue their attack on freedom of choice.
“They’re just too good at messaging,” Levenson says.