At first blush, the results of a recent Pew Research Center poll measuring attitudes towards Roe v. Wade and legal abortion appear discouraging for pro-life Americans. After all, Pew presented those results as “Roe v. Wade at 40: Most Oppose Overturning Abortion Decision.”
The math seems clear. Pew reported that while 29 percent of Americans would like to see Roe overturned, 63 percent say they would not like to see that change. However, a closer look at the questions, the results, and other relevant information presents a different picture entirely.
Question 53 of the poll asks: “In 1973 the Roe v. Wade decision established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Would you like to see the Supreme Court completely overturn its Roe v. Wade decision, or not?” (emphasis added) This question is fundamentally flawed because it depicts the Roe decision as being much narrower than it is. In reality, through Roe and its companion case Doe v. Bolton, the Court invented a right to abortion through all nine months of pregnancy. In so doing, the court invalidated laws restricting abortion in all 50 states.
Further, many of the individuals polled were surely unaware that the overturn of Roe would actually return the questions associated with the legalization/regulation of abortion primarily to state legislatures. Without an accurate explanation of the breadth of Roe and the implications of its reversal, the results of the poll cannot be given much weight.
The flaws in question 53 are illuminated when you contrast the question’s results with the results of another question in the poll.
Question 18 asks: “Do you personally believe that having an abortion is morally acceptable, morally wrong, or is not a moral issue?” Forty-seven percent of respondents felt that abortion was morally wrong, compared with 13 percent who thought it was morally acceptable.
Among the many Americans who believe that abortion is morally wrong but are uncomfortable with a ban, there are certainly many who would not oppose the reversal of Roe v. Wade if they understood the decision and its impact on the regulation of abortion.
In fact, a 2011 Gallup poll demonstrated that 87 percent of Americans support informed consent laws, 71 percent support parental involvement requirements, and 64 percent support laws that would make it illegal to perform a partial-birth abortion. Yet few if any of these laws were constitutional under the Roe framework—they are only enforceable today because the Supreme Court made modifications to Roe in subsequent court decisions.
How then can an accurate measure of public opinion on Roe v. Wade and abortion be taken today? There are a number of factors demonstrating that Americans are substantially more pro-life than the Pew poll indicates.
America’s abortion rate is declining, as are the number of pregnancies ending in abortion. A change in public sentiment certainly plays a part in this decline. Further, other polls demonstrate an increasing pro-life majority. A May 23, 2012 Gallup poll indicated that the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as “pro-choice” has hit a record low of 41 percent. Americans now tilt “pro-life” by a nine-point margin, 50 percent to 41 percent.
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Additionally, millions of Americans across the country continue to vote for pro-life legislators and governors who have ushered in laws protecting women and the unborn. The Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Gonzales v. Carhart modified the Roe doctrine enough to permit many regulations of abortion, and the states have responded by enacting a dramatic number of laws, including approximately 40 laws in 2012 and an historic 70 laws in 2011. The enactment of these laws would not be possible without pro-life Americans to back them and their sponsors.
Support for Roe v. Wade among Americans is more likely the result of ignorance about the decision than true conviction that it is good law. It is critical for those in the pro-life movement to continue to strive to educate Americans about the breadth and implications of Roe, and why, forty years later, its reversal is desperately overdue.
 Gallup Politics, Common State Abortion Restrictions Spark Mixed Reviews (July 25, 2011).
2 For more on these facts, please see A More Pro-Life Union: 40 Years After Roe v. Wade, Defending Life 2013, available at http://aul.org/featured-images/AUL-1301_DL13%20Book_FINAL.pdf.