July 11, 2013 — Although "absolutist voices" often dominate the abortion-rights debate, most Americans' views on the issue remain "complex and conditional" 40 years after Roe v. Wade barred states from outlawing abortion, the Washington Post reports.
Polls show that many U.S. residents' opinions on abortion rights depend on the length of the pregnancy, the woman's reason for seeking an abortion and health issues affecting the woman or fetus. For example, six in 10 people believe abortion should be legal in the first trimester, but only 27% believe it should be legal in the second trimester and 14% believe it should be allowed during the third trimester, according to a Gallup poll from December.
Similarly, newer data from the National Opinion Research Center show that many U.S. residents support abortion rights in instances of rape (78%), fetal deformity (77%) or danger to a woman's health (87%), but fewer support the option when a woman believes she cannot afford to have more children (45%) or does not want to marry the father (42%).
Poll results on abortion have remained remarkably unchanged over the years, the Post notes. The steady public opinion on abortion contrasts with that on other contentious social issues -- such as same-sex marriage and legalized marijuana -- where younger people have helped propel a shift to the left.
According to the Post, the complexity of opinions on abortion "means the political argument around it -- even more than most issues -- is likely to be won by the side that more agilely frames the question."
That dynamic has been at play for both sides in recent election cycles. While Democrats successfully mobilized their base around conservatives' "war on women" last year, Republicans have rallied back by passing 43 new abortion restrictions at the state level in the first half of this year.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake explained the importance of how the debate is framed, saying, "The more you have people think about a woman's personal decision-making -- how you can't have someone else make that decision, especially politicians," the better the argument works for those who support abortion rights.
On the conservative side, Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said abortion-rights opponents manage their arguments best when they focus on the fetus or procedure. "We have found that the more specific you are about the thing you are talking about, the more public opinion will move your way," she said (Tumulty, Washington Post, 7/10).