At a pivotal moment in the country’s decades-long debate over abortion rights, public attitudes about the legality of abortion are largely divided along partisan lines – and to a greater extent than in past decades. At the same time, a major new Pew Research Center study finds a wide range of opinions among Republicans and Democrats on several abortion-related issues.
How we did this
Pew Research Center conducted this study to examine the U.S. public’s attitudes about abortion. For this analysis, we surveyed 10,441 U.S. adults from March 7-13, 2022. Everyone who took part in the survey is a member of the Center’s American Trend panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses which gives nearly all U.S. adults a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.
Here are the questions used for this analysis, along with responses, and its methodology.
About six-in-ten U.S. adults (61%) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37% say it should be illegal in all or most cases, according to the survey, which was conducted March 7-13, 2022, among 10,441 adults. The survey was fielded before the recent publication of a draft Supreme Court opinion that suggested the justices may be poised to strike down Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that effectively authorized abortion nationwide.
The share of Americans who say abortion should be legal in all or most cases is little changed in recent years. But support is higher today than it was a decade ago. In 2012, and throughout much of former President Barack Obama’s administration, only about half of Americans said abortion should always or mostly be legal.
While Republicans and Democrats have long been on opposite sides of the issue, the 42 percentage point partisan gap today is considerably larger than it was in the recent past. The change in attitudes has come almost entirely among Democrats: Currently, 80% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, up from 72% in 2016 and 63% in 2007. Republicans’ views have shown far less change over time: Currently, 38% of Republicans and GOP leaners say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
In many ways, the partisan divisions over whether abortion should generally be legal in the United States tell only part of the story. While most Democrats say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, sizable shares favor restrictions on abortion under certain circumstances. And while most Republicans favor making abortion illegal in all or most cases, majorities favor exceptions in cases of rape or when the life of the woman is at risk.
The new survey includes a detailed examination of public opinion about abortion at specific time points in a pregnancy. Among the public overall, 56% of adults say that how long a woman has been pregnant should matter in determining whether abortion should be legal; this includes 64% of Republicans and 52% of Democrats.
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that abortion should be illegal at each stage of a pregnancy. For instance, in the first six weeks of pregnancy – when cardiac activity sometimes known as a “fetal heartbeat” may be detected, but before many women know they are pregnant – a third of Republicans say abortion should be illegal, while 26% say it should be legal and 24% say “it depends.” Among Democrats, 61% say abortion should be legal at this stage of a pregnancy, while 10% say it should be illegal and 14% say it depends. Overall, the public is about twice as likely to say abortion should be legal than illegal at this stage of a pregnancy (44% vs. 21%, with 19% saying it depends).
At 24 weeks of pregnancy – when a healthy fetus may survive outside of the womb with medical attention – 43% of Americans overall say abortion should be illegal, while 22% say it should be legal and 18% say it depends. At this stage, 60% of Republicans say abortion should be illegal, while just 8% say it should be legal and 15% say it depends. By comparison, Democrats are divided: 34% say abortion should be legal at this point, 29% say illegal and 21% say it depends.
Views also differ depending on the circumstances around a pregnancy. Overall, a clear majority of adults say abortion should be legal if the pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or health (73%) or if the pregnancy is the result of rape (69%). A smaller majority says abortion should be legal if the baby is likely to be born with severe disabilities or health issues (53%).
Democrats’ attitudes about these circumstances follow a similar pattern. At least eight-in-ten say abortion should be legal if the pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or health (84%) or the pregnancy is the result of rape (83%). A slightly smaller majority says the same about abortion if the baby is likely to be born with severe disabilities (68%).
Republicans are more divided on these questions: While a clear majority say abortion should be legal if a woman’s life is endangered (62%), a slightly smaller share say the same about a pregnancy that is the result of rape (56%). Republicans are far more divided on abortion if the baby is likely to be born with disabilities or health problems: 38% say abortion should be legal in this circumstance, while 29% say it should be illegal and 31% say it depends.
Majority of Americans say doctors who perform abortions in situations where it is illegal should face penalties
As several states have passed more restrictive abortion laws in recent months, some of the public debate has focused on proposed penalties for doctors or women if abortions occur in situations in which they are illegal.
Overall, 60% of Americans say doctors or providers should face a penalty if they carry out an abortion in a situation where it is illegal. The public is divided, however, on whether women who have abortions under such circumstances should face penalties: 47% say they should face a penalty, while 50% say they should not.
Americans are less likely to say the person who helped pay for the abortion (43%) or the person who helped find and schedule the abortion (41%) should face penalties.
Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to favor penalties for each of these individuals. About eight-in-ten Republicans (78%), for example, say doctors or providers should face penalties if they carry out an abortion in a situation where it is illegal, while 53% of Democrats say they should not. Republicans are also nearly twice as likely as Democrats to say a woman who has an abortion in a situation where it is illegal should face a penalty (63% vs. 34%).
The new survey also reveals large partisan differences on what those penalties should be. For example, 40% of Republicans say doctors should face jail time if they carry out an abortion in a situation where it is illegal; just 13% of Democrats say the same. And 21% of Republicans say a woman should serve jail time if she has an abortion in a situation where it is illegal, compared with just 8% of Democrats.
Mirroring partisan divides about abortion overall, Democrats are more likely to say that a variety of statements in support of legal abortion represent their views extremely or very well.
For example, 70% of Democrats say the statement “the decision about whether to have an abortion belongs solely to the pregnant woman” describes their own views extremely or very well. Half as many Republicans (35%) say the same.
Conversely, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say a variety of statements in support of abortion restrictions represent their views well. A majority of Republicans (56%), for instance, say the statement “human life begins at conception, so a fetus is a person with rights” describes their own views extremely or very well. About a quarter of Democrats (23%) say this statement reflects their views well.
When it comes to setting policies around abortion, 70% of Democrats say women should have a lot (58%) or a little (12%) more say than men. Among Republicans, 41% say women should have a lot (23%) or a little (17%) more say than men. A majority of Republicans (55%) say men and women should have equal say.
Age differences, especially among Republicans, in views of whether abortion should be legal
Among adults overall, women are slightly more likely than men to say abortion should be legal in all or most cases (63% vs. 58%), though similar shares of men and women within each party say abortion should be legal.
There also is a sizeable age gap in these views: 74% of Americans younger than 30 say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, up from 67% last year. That share falls to 62% among those ages 30 to 49, 55% among those 50 to 64, and 54% among those ages 65 and older.
In both partisan groups, younger Americans are more likely to support legal abortion, but the pattern is particularly pronounced among Republicans. Nearly half of Republicans younger than 30 say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases (47%). This compares with only about a third of Republicans ages 50 and older.
Around three-quarters or more of Democrats in all age groups say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, but those under 30 are somewhat more likely to say this (86%). Democrats under 30 are also considerably more likely than their older counterparts to say abortion should be legal in all cases without exception (50% of Democrats under 30 say this, compared with 35% of those 30 and older).
By many measures, women report being closer to abortion-related issues than men – a pattern that is evident in both partisan groups. Women in both parties are more likely to say they personally know someone, such as a close friend or family member, who has had an abortion.
In the survey – conducted before the May 2 leak of the draft Supreme Court decision that would appear to strike down Roe vs. Wade – womenare also more likely than men to say they have thought a lot about the issue.
Among Republicans, women are 8 points more likely than men to say they have thought a lot about abortion (39% vs. 31%). The gap among Democrats is wider: 43% of Democratic women have thought a lot about abortion, compared with 31% of men.
Hannah Hartig is a research associate focusing on U.S. politics and policy research at Pew Research Center.