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Fifty years ago Sunday, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the constitutional right to an abortion with the Roe v. Wade decision. Nearly seven months ago, the same court overturned that ruling, putting the matter back to the states.
A new NPR/Ipsos poll finds that 3 in 5 Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, although they hold a range of opinions when asked about the exact circumstances. The survey, conducted this January, heard from a representative sample of more than 1,000 adults, including 278 Republicans, 320 Democrats, and 324 Independents.
Despite the issue’s high profile, more than a quarter of Americans do not know what the abortion laws are in their state, the poll also finds.
Americans say politics, not public will, drives abortion policy
Some of that confusion among poll respondents may come from the patchwork of policies now determining abortion rights. Without a federal law in place, state policies are shaped by lawsuits, state laws and constitutional amendments.
A majority of Americans say they would like the decision to be in their hands, not elected officials. Nearly 7 in 10 of those surveyed say they would strongly or somewhat support their state using a ballot measure or voter referendum to decide abortion rights, if they had the option, rather than leaving the decision to state lawmakers.
That distrust was reflected in NPR interviews with survey takers who have a variety of views on abortion policy.
“The government needs to butt out” when it comes to this issue, says Felicia Jackson, 24, a nurse in Ohio. She says she does not identify with either major political party. When asked if she feels represented by her state lawmakers, Jackson says, “absolutely not.”
Fifty-eight percent of respondents say they think lawmakers are making abortion policy based on what donors and their base want, not what the majority of the public wants.
They also voiced this disconnect when evaluating federal officials making calls about abortion rights.
An even larger number, 62% of respondents, say the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was based “more on politics than the law.” Sixty percent of respondents say that they thought the Roe decision was correctly decided in 1973.
When asked about the abortion law in her state, poll respondent Christine Guesman, a 69-year-old retired teacher in Ohio, says, “It’s way too strict. It’s a bunch of men deciding how women should live their lives and I don’t approve.”
Across all political affiliations, 60% of people support abortion being legal
Currently, abortion is illegal or heavily restricted in at least 14 states. Those restrictions are at odds with what the majority of Americans want, according to the NPR/Ipsos poll.
Per the poll results:
26% say that abortion should be legal in all cases.
34% say the procedure should be legal in most cases.
28% say the procedure should be illegal in most cases.
9% say abortion should be illegal in all cases.
Many of the survey takers interviewed by NPR say they are uncomfortable with absolute bans, even if they believe abortion access should have some guardrails.
“There’s a place for it and a place not for it,” says Jackson. She says she supports restrictions on abortion access but not without some exceptions.
“I definitely feel more comfortable with some exceptions, rather than a total ban,” says Trevor Casper, 31, of Idaho. He says overall he is not pro-abortion rights, and “in an ideal world abortions wouldn’t be allowed except for the extreme circumstances.”
When asked what the law should be, the largest number (36%) still say abortion should be legal with very few or no restrictions.
“It’s our bodies, the government shouldn’t have any say what we do with our bodies,” says Elvira King, 55, of Oregon. King says she had two ectopic pregnancies, where the fertilized egg implants outside the uterus, which had to be terminated to save her life. That experience made her an abortion-rights supporter, but King says would not mind some restrictions on procedures later in pregnancy.
NPR’s Liz Baker contributed reporting to this story.