Polling on abortion helps explain uproar over Supreme Court leak on Roe v. Wade

A slew of recent polls showing most Americans want abortion to remain legal across the United States may help shed light on the uproar following Monday's report in Politico that five conservative Supreme Court justices seem poised to strike down Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that established a constitutional right to abortion almost half a century ago.

Last month, only about 3 in 10 U.S. adults said the Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade (30%) and transform abortion into a procedure that “individual states” are “able to outlaw” (27%), according to the most recent Yahoo News/YouGov survey.

In contrast, about twice as many Americans — a 54% majority — said in the same poll that abortion is “a constitutional right that women in all states should have some access to.”

Other surveys have repeatedly found, meanwhile, that even more Americans believe abortion should be legal in “all” or “most” cases (59%, according to Pew Research) and want the Supreme Court to uphold Roe v. Wade (60%, according to the Washington Post and ABC).

Protesters shout outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday after the leak of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito preparing for a majority of the court to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Protesters outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday after the leak of a draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito preparing for a majority of the court to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Given this consensus, it’s no surprise that the leaked document has already triggered substantial backlash, even as Chief Justice John Roberts cautioned that the draft opinion “does not represent a decision by the Court or the final position of any member on the issues in the case.”

Yet beneath the consensus — and the backlash — much of the country tends to see abortion in shades of gray rather than black and white.

A question from the April Yahoo News/YouGov poll illustrates this dynamic. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, leaving it up to states to make their own abortion laws, only 13% of Americans would prefer their own state to “ban all abortions”; just 28% would prefer that their state “keep all abortions legal.” Far more — a full 46% — would prefer something in between: either keeping most (but not all) abortions legal (22%) or banning most (but not all) of them (24%).

The reason? Americans have mixed feelings about the morality of the procedure, which means it matters to them when and why it’s being performed.

Abortion rights activists and anti-abortion advocates protest in response to the leaked Supreme Court draft decision.
Abortion-rights and anti-abortion advocates in front of the Supreme Court on Tuesday. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 6 in 10 U.S. adults think abortion should generally be legal in the first three months of pregnancy. But support drops by about half, to 28%, for abortions conducted between three and six months — and by half again, to 13%, for the final three months.

Further complicating matters, according to Gallup, is 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.”

In the same poll, Gallup found that a huge majority of Americans say that when a woman’s life is in danger, abortion should be legal in both the first trimester (83%) and the third trimester (75%) — by far the most widely accepted reason for getting an abortion. Majorities also favored legal abortion in both trimesters for pregnancies caused by rape or incest, “although support falls from 77% in the first trimester to barely half (52%) in the third.”

Meanwhile, most Americans said abortions performed because a child would be born with medical problems (such as a life-threatening illness or a mental disability) should be legal in the first trimester — but fewer than half said the same for the third trimester. And Americans were least accepting of abortions conducted because a pregnant woman “doesn’t want the child for any reason,” with just 45% telling Gallup they should be legal in the first trimester in that scenario and a mere 20% saying the same for the third.

Where this leaves public opinion in the wake of Monday’s potentially momentous news remains to be seen. (Yahoo News and YouGov will release a new survey later this week.) In recent years, views on abortion have not fluctuated much, with about half the country calling itself anti-abortion and about half calling itself pro-abortion-rights; about half the country saying abortion is morally wrong and half saying it’s morally acceptable; and with Democrats, independents and women much more inclined to support abortion rights than Republicans and men.

It’s possible a forthcoming Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe could scramble some of these categories, forcing politicians who have taken refuge in partisan talking points to confront America’s complex views on the issue. Or it could just push everyone even further into their respective corners.