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Poll Shows Most Americans Support Abortion Rights, But With Some Limitations


Roe versus Wade should stand, according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll on abortion. While a majority of Americans would keep in place the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973, most also support some restrictions on the procedure.

NPR's Sarah McCammon joins us now to talk about it. Hi, Sarah.


SHAPIRO: Tell us more about what this poll found.

MCCAMMON: So the bottom line is that most Americans favor legal abortion in some cases and not in others. And most people - 77% - say the Supreme Court should uphold Roe v. Wade. Just 13% say it should be overturned. So where people differ is in the particulars. In this poll, 18% said abortion should be legal at any time during pregnancy. Nine percent said it should never be allowed, and another 9% said only to save a woman's life. Everybody else, Ari, is somewhere in the middle.

That said, there is some nuance here. Some people want more restrictions than Roe allows. Others want fewer. I talked to Barbara Carvalho, the director of the Marist Poll, and she says politicians often talk about abortion as a polarizing issue, but that doesn't necessarily capture how Americans feel.

BARBARA CARVALHO: I think they see it as advantageous to both, you know, fundraising, vote-getting, to echo these loudest voices. And so when we look at public opinion, public opinion isn't really at those points. Public opinion is in the middle.

MCCAMMON: And this has been borne out by other polls - by Gallup and Pew, for example. Most Americans want some restrictions on abortion, but don't want to ban it altogether.

SHAPIRO: So dig into that gray area for us. When people talk about the restrictions they would like to see, how did people respond in this poll?

MCCAMMON: So there is really broad consensus that abortion should be allowed if a woman's life or health are at risk. Eighty-six percent said yes to that. A majority also support allowing abortion for reasons of rape or incest. Other polls have found more support for restrictions on abortion later - as a pregnancy progresses, and our results tend to back up that idea, too.

Interestingly, this poll also asked people how they describe a fetus in the uterus. Half said, for the first three months, it should be described as a fetus. About a third said an unborn child. But then by the time you get to those last three months of pregnancy, most people said it should be called an unborn child. Here's Barbara Carvalho again with the Marist Poll.

CARVALHO: I think that what this survey showed is that tension between the legality and then, also, the values that many people have in this country about what life is.

SHAPIRO: Sarah, you've done a lot of reporting lately on state legislatures that have passed laws restricting abortion, like the one in Georgia where abortion is banned starting around six weeks into a pregnancy. What did respondents to the poll say about those state laws?

MCCAMMON: Well, those early bans - which haven't taken effect yet, by the way, but often don't include exceptions for rape and incest - they're really at odds with public opinion. Fifty-nine percent of people say they oppose laws that ban abortion that early.

Another interesting thing about this poll is that it asked people to self-identify as pro-choice or pro-life. Those labels had - have limited usefulness because they're not very complex, but it does give us a feel for how people are feeling. This poll found a peak in the number of people who identify as pro-choice in recent years. Fifty-seven percent said pro-choice, 35% pro-life. Compare that, Ari, to just February when it was an even split between pro-choice and pro-life.

Now, that poll took place right after New York passed an abortion law decriminalizing abortion later in pregnancy. So pollsters say there's a real reaction here in public opinion to what's going on in state legislatures. And people kind of tend to push back against what they're seeing state lawmakers doing.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thanks, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.