Abortion is often cast as a clear, crisp issue in Washington and in state governments, with Republican and Democrats clustered in opposite corners. Joe Biden moved nearer to the rest of his party’s presidential contenders on Thursday when he dropped his support of a measure restricting use of federal funds for abortions.
But while the Democratic field now looks more uniform, the public’s views are often muddled and complex. They bear little resemblance to those of politicians, or even to those of the activists and ideologically consistent voters who post political content to social media.
Biden’s decision is a reflection of how much the Democratic Party has shifted since the Hyde Amendment was passed in 1976. But even today, a substantial number of Democrats and Republicans dissent from the consensus of their party, or at least of their party’s politicians, about when or if abortion should be legal and accessible.
Overall, 40 percent of Democrats say they oppose legal abortion if the woman wants one for any reason; 29 percent of Republicans say they support legal abortion if the woman wants one for any reason, according to the General Social Survey, a highly regarded survey that has asked Americans about their views for decades.
Some Americans might not hold strong, stable views about abortion. Different poll questions yield different, sometimes contradictory answers — even from the same respondents in the same poll. Question wording is always a factor in survey research. But the differences here may also reflect that many Americans struggle with the complex moral and ethical issues at stake, even as the political conversation is dominated by voters who have made up their minds.
These less ideological voters are underrepresented among party activists. They’re easy to miss, or at least some politicians seem to have missed them. A recent study found that many conservative legislators substantially underestimate support for abortion among their own constituents. It could help explain why Republican lawmakers in Alabama and elsewhere have chosen to support restrictions on abortion that go well beyond what polls say their voters support.
The more abortion-wary Democratic voters have been easy to miss as well, but they are increasingly familiar to those who have followed intra-Democratic politics this year.
They are less educated, more moderate, more religious, more rural, more likely to be nonwhite and to live in the South. Demographically, they are similar to the voters who have foiled the party’s progressive activists on many occasions so far this cycle, like those who have given Biden a durable lead, despite concerns that he touched women without their consent, or like those who wanted Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia to stay in office, despite the revelation of a racist photo on his yearbook page.
The presence of these voters gives reason to question whether Biden will face a steep electoral penalty for his changed position on the Hyde Amendment.
Biden’s Democratic rivals can hope that he is out of step with a majority of the party. Elizabeth Warren, increasingly a favorite of the party’s most liberal voters, said Biden was wrong about the amendment Wednesday, describing it as an assault on the “most vulnerable.” Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders also cast their opposition to the amendment as an issue of economic justice.
The party includes a substantial number of abortion-rights advocates who probably care about the issue far more than the party’s abortion skeptics. Whether Biden currently depends on the support of many of these voters, however, is an open question.
Overall, 94 percent of white, college-educated liberal Democrats say a woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion if she wants one for any reason. But the rest of the Democratic Party is split. Just 55 percent of all other Democratic-leaners, according to the General Social Survey, thought women should be able to obtain legal abortion for any reason she wants. Black Democrats were split 50-50.
A 2016 poll by Politico and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 57 percent of supporters of Hillary Clinton favored allowing Medicaid funds to pay for abortions, while 36 percent were opposed. Nationwide, the same survey found those numbers reversed among all likely voters: 36 percent in support, 58 percent opposed.
Of course, attitudes about abortion are hard to pin down. The number of Americans who appear to side with one side or the other can vary a lot, depending on the question’s phrasing.
Polls show a wide majority of Americans support the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion. The Pew Research Center has repeatedly found that most Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Yet even by the Pew measure, which has tended to represent the high-water mark for public support for abortion, only 59 percent of Southern Democratic leaners and 57 percent of Democratic leaners who attend church at least once a week say most abortions should be legal, according to Pew Research data from 2017.
When it comes to specific cases, things get more complicated. A recent Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans support abortion in the first three months of pregnancy. That number dropped to 45 percent — among the same respondents — simply by adding the condition “when the woman does not want the child for any reason.”
Gallup found majority support for legal abortion in the first trimester only in cases of rape or incest, when the woman’s life was in danger, or when the child would be born with illness or disability. Similarly, the GSS has found majority support for legal abortion only as a result of rape, the health of the mother, or a risk of serious defect. The GSS has never found majority support for legal abortion for, say, a low-income woman who can’t afford a child, or a married woman who doesn’t want more children. What the GSS has always found is that these issues don’t break neatly on partisan lines. They still don’t, although the parties today are more unified on abortion than they have ever been.
It is hard to reconcile it all. Many analysts or activists have tried, often in ways that show that their own views command majority support. But the most straightforward interpretation may be that the polls aren’t clear because for most Americans, abortion is a difficult, even wrenching issue that is not easily resolved for themselves, let alone the country.