A common assumption in the debate surrounding the fall of Roe v. Wade, who established the constitutional right to abortion in 1973, is that there are only two sides. On one side, the thinking goes, are those who think abortion should be legal and that Roe should be upheld, while on the other side are those who think abortion should be illegal and that Roe should be repealed.
The Public Religion Research Institute, of which I am Research Director, surveyed more than 5,000 Americans on their views on abortion in Marchand we found that 64 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 35 percent said abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.
These results are consistent with other surveys on the subject – a majority of Americans generally support the legality of abortion, although the exact proportion varies depending on how the questions are formulated and what possible answers are offered. However, perhaps counterintuitively, 43 percent of those who thought abortion should be illegal in most or all cases opposite Roe upset while 26 percent of those who thought abortion should be legal in most or all cases supports Roe overturn.
A common response to this type of bias is that respondents are wrong. When I discussed this finding with some of my well-informed friends, their first instinct was that people are not intelligent or not paying attention. As a pollster, I’ve seen this reaction to my work more times than I can count.
It is possible for an interviewee to say “Roe v. Wade” sees and hastily clicks “Reject” because he thinks that’s the correct response for those opposed to abortion, and vice versa for those who support abortion. And although the wording of the Roe v. Wade as “the 1973 Supreme Court decision upholding a constitutional right to abortion,” one could get confused about what it means to “set aside” a case. But to assume that this misalignment is due to a lack of intelligence or understanding misses the fact that many people have truly nuanced opinions on complex issues like abortion and roe.
As a matter of fact, based on an analysis of his writings, statements and previous decisions, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts is probably one of those people – he seems to think abortion should be illegal but refuses to overthrow Roe. Nobody would describe Roberts as uninformed. Granted, most Americans are not as knowledgeable as Roberts, nor do they give the Supreme Court precedent the importance that Roberts has. But examining what we know about people who hold seemingly conflicting views on abortion and Roe’s downfall shows where back pressure could lead to conflicting views.
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As is true of most public opinion on abortion, there are not major gender differences; Women and men alike tend to have opposite opinions. However, there are clear patterns by race, age and education.
Black (39 percent) and Hispanic (36 percent) Americans, for example, were more likely to fall into this backpressure category than White (28 percent), Asian or Pacific Islander (28 percent), or Multiracial Americans (21 percent). By age, younger Americans — particularly those between the ages of 30 and 49 — reported back pressure more frequently (37 percent) than other age groups, as did parents of children under 18 (38 percent) compared to non-parents (28 percent). Finally, 4 in 10 Americans with a high school diploma or less belonged to this category, which was much smaller than the proportion with a more formal education (31 percent some college degree; 19 percent college degree or higher).
More Republicans (36 percent) than Democrats (26 percent) fell into this contradictory category. And since most Republicans think abortion should be illegal, more fell into the “illegal but don’t subvert” category (24 percent); Meanwhile, given that most Democrats think abortion should be legal, more fell into the legal but tipped category (18 percent).
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Abortion is an issue with strong religious implications, so it is not surprising that some Christian groups have particularly high proportions who fall into this category of back pressure. If we break down the two opposing categories, more white evangelical Protestants, Hispanic Protestants, and Hispanic Catholics fell into the illegal but don’t overthrow category than the legal but overthrow category, while more black Protestants and non-Christian religious fell Americans fell into the legal but upset category. At least 35 percent of each of these groups fell into the transverse pressure category.
All of this combined strongly suggests that the people most likely to be pressured against abortion were Black, Hispanic, parents, those aged 30 to 49, those with a high school education, Republicans, or religious.
Lower levels of education might also explain some of what we’re seeing — consider that in the same survey, 61 percent of those with a high school education or less said they didn’t know what would happen in their state if Roe were overthrown. Those with a college degree (47 percent) and a college degree or higher (37 percent) were much less likely to say they weren’t sure.
Although Republicans and Christians are generally associated with anti-abortion opinions, significant proportions of these groups said they personally believe abortion should be illegal but do not want Roe to be overthrown. That could be for reasons similar to Roberts’, or maybe they don’t want to leave everything to the States. On the other hand, simply accepting the status quo might be evidence – a poll by the Pew Research Center Research conducted at the same time as the PRRIs found that only 36 percent of Americans had done extensive research.
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Of course, some of these dynamics could change in the coming weeks and months if Roe is actually overthrown in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case. What will not change, however, is that opinions about abortion and Roe v. Wade is complex and nuanced. It is a mistake to use only one poll question to look at the problem. Views on abortion cannot be reduced to a simple legal/illegal framework, even when it comes to roe. The answers may not mean what you think they mean.