As N.C. abortion law veto stands, a look at national views on the issue and its future

Yesterday, North Carolina narrowly avoided becoming one of the states passing a wave of restrictive new laws related to abortion that seem likely to lead to a Supreme Court showdown on the issue.

Last week, before Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto was sustained, Gallup released its annual poll on the moral acceptability of a number of American social issues.

On abortion, 50 percent of those surveyed said they find it morally unacceptable while 42 percent said they found it morally acceptable.


Those numbers have shifted only slightly over the last year, with a 2018 Gallup poll finding 48 percent of respondents answering that abortion is morally unacceptable and 43 percent saying it is morally acceptable.

But moral acceptability does not seem to completely drive opinions as to whether abortion should be legal in the U.S. — or whether the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade.

Last year’s gallup poll also found that about 48 percent of Americans identify as “pro-choice” and the same percentage identify as “pro-life.”

The question of when and under what circumstances abortion should be legal also leads to complicating diversions of opinion.

According to Gallup:

The two sides also diverge when it comes to the legality of first-trimester abortions. Nine in 10 pro-choice Americans say abortion should generally be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, while six in 10 pro-life Americans believe it should be illegal.

At the same time, there are two important areas of consensus that have typically been respected in U.S. abortion laws. One involves protecting abortion rights when pregnancy endangers a woman’s life. The other is keeping abortion legal when pregnancy is caused by rape or incest.

According to Gallup’s 2018 abortion survey, not only do most Americans as a whole favor these protections, but so do majorities of pro-life Americans — 71% for the endangered woman’s life exception and 57% for cases of rape or incest. Support for these allowances is nearly universal among pro-choice Americans.

Gallup also offered a historical perspective on shifting views:

Although there has been some variation in past years, Americans have typically been closely split on whether they consider themselves pro-choice or pro-life, particularly since 2000, when the averages have been 47% pro-choice and 46% pro-life. During the 1990s — when Gallup first asked the question — more Americans personally identified as pro-choice than as pro-life by 51% to 40%, on average.

When asked more specifically about their views on the legality of abortion, half of Americans adopt a middle-of-the-road position, saying abortion should be legal “only under certain circumstances.” Americans with more absolute positions tend to come down on the side of abortion being legal under any circumstances (29%) than being illegal in all circumstances (18%).

Historically, Americans have been most likely to favor the middle position — abortion being legal under certain circumstances. Rarely has the percentage saying abortion should sometimes be legal fallen below 50%, averaging 53% since it was first asked in 1975.

There has been a slight uptick in the percentage saying abortion should always be legal, from 21% in 1975 — two years after the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide — to 29% today. This percentage has varied in the interim, peaking at 33% in 1991, 1994 and 1995, but reverting to 21% as recently as 2009, and averaging 27%.

In the 1975 poll, 22% of Americans said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. The 18% who currently hold this view matches the average over the past 43 years.

Meanwhile, the questions of how the Supreme Court should rules — and of how Americans think they are likely to rule — is a different one.

A Harvard CAPS/Harris poll released last month found 46 percent of respondents saying the Supreme Court should affirm the constitutional right to abortion established in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

Thirty-six percent said the Supreme Court should modify the ruling. and 18 percent said the ruling to be overturned.

When asked whether they believe is likely to happen, 49 percent of respondents said they expect the Supreme Court will modify its ruling in Roe v. Wade. Thirty-one percent said they expect the decision to be upheld and 10 percent said they expect the court to strike it down.

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