WASHINGTON — Despite abortion having been part of the national debate for nearly a half-century, it remains a complex and complicated issue to a significant majority of Americans, according to a survey released April 17.
Sixty-two percent of Americans “see abortion as a complicated issue,” with 36 percent saying “it is simple and straightforward,” said the survey, “Young People Set to Impact the Debate on Women’s Health Issues,” issued by the Public Religion Research Institute.
“Americans who say abortion should be either legal in all cases or illegal in all cases are more likely to say the issue is simple and straightforward than those who hold more qualified attitudes,” with close to half of the absolutists declaring it simple and straightforward. By comparison, only about a quarter of those who believe abortion should be legal — or illegal — in most, but not all, cases say the issue is simple and straightforward.
“In the general population, attitudes have remained fairly stable over the last couple of decades,” said Robert P. Jones, PRRI’s CEO, in an April 17 phone interview with Catholic News Service.
“Even though we’re seeing younger people being more supportive, and older people being more opposed, all generations are seeing it as being a more complicated issue. The exception are people who are out on the poles … at both ends of the spectrum.”
The survey, which interviewed more than 2,000 Americans, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.
The PRRI survey found 54 percent of those polled say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, down 3 percentage points from the 57 percent who said the same in a Pew Research Center survey a decade ago.
However, the PRRI numbers indicate the United States’ youngest voters are more likely to support a so-called right to abortion.
For those who reported changing their attitude on abortion, 12 percent are more supportive of abortion, and 11 percent are more opposed. But 25 percent of those ages 18-29 were more supportive, compared to 9 percent in that age group who said they had grown more opposed.
“One piece of evidence that this may be more of a cohort effect is, when you look at the issues of whether abortion goes against their personal beliefs, there’s a generation gap, 44 percent of young Americans vs. 60 percent of seniors. This is an issue that is always wrapped up with moral and religious arguments, and young people are rooting it less there (in religion) than older people,” Jones said.
“If you want to go one step further, they have a less tenuous connection to religious organizations than older people,” especially seniors, he added. “Four in 10 (younger Americans who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. That is a factor of three,” meaning young adults are three times less likely to claim a religious affiliation than seniors. “Beliefs on this matter are connected to religious values” more than others, he said.
The pendulum swings in the other direction, though, among interview subjects ages 30-49. There, 14 percent said they had grown more opposed, while 9 percent said they had grown more supportive of abortion.
Another illustration of the complexity of Americans’ views on abortion: “While a majority of Americans say abortion should be legal in at least most cases, a majority (54 percent) also agree that ‘abortion goes against my personal beliefs,'” the survey said. This is the exact percentage of those who said abortion should be legal in most cases.
“Most Americans do not believe abortion will become completely illegal in the U.S. in their lifetime,” the poll reported: 60 percent overall said they believed this, although 58 percent of Hispanic survey respondents said they believe abortion will be made illegal.
“We see a break between Hispanics who were born in the United States and those who were not born in the United States,” Jones explained. “They may come from countries where abortion is illegal. That is part of the story. Either they have relatives in that context or they themselves have lived in this context. This makes it (abortion being outlawed) more imaginable.”
“Fewer than half of women (45 percent) and men (42 percent) say abortion services should be covered by most health insurance plans,” the survey said. Men were less supportive of women when queried about what kinds of reproductive services should be covered by health insurance, including testing and screening for sexually transmitted diseases, prescription birth control, infertility treatments and erectile dysfunction medication such as Viagra.
Abortion was the only item where a majority of both men and women were opposed to it being covered.
“Women are in a less secure financial position than men are,” Jones said, and want reproductive health services to be covered in greater numbers.
The survey noted, “Women are significantly more likely than men to prioritize a candidate’s position on abortion when making voting decisions.” Twenty-four percent of women say they would only vote for a candidate who shares their views on the issue, nearly twice the percentage of men who said the same.
“Two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans say emphasizing safer sexual practices is more effective than abstinence at reducing unintended pregnancies. Fewer than one-quarter (24 percent) say focusing on abstinence is more effective,” it said. The survey reported a similar difference when the goal was avoiding sexually transmitted diseases.
The survey added, “Americans of different religious backgrounds largely support including discussions of same-sex relationships in sexuality education classes.” This view was held by 64 percent of Catholics; the only group polling a higher percentage were religiously unaffiliated Americans at 74 percent.
It’s not a new phenomenon, Jones told CNS. “We’ve seen that actually consistently for at least a decade” on LGBT issues ranging from nondiscrimination laws to same-sex marriage, he said. “Catholics have been 4 or 5 points more supportive than the rest of the population,” Jones added, with “no divide” between Hispanic and white Catholics.
The Catholic Church upholds traditional marriage, teaching that it is between one man and one woman.
Jones supplied CNS with results from Catholic survey respondents not in the final report.
“On most questions, Catholics overall look similar to the general population, but there are significant differences on many questions among Catholics by frequency of religious attendance,” he said. Forty-three percent reported going to Mass weekly, with 56 percent saying they went three times a month or less.
“While a majority (52 percent) of Catholics overall say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, Catholics who attend religious services weekly or more are significantly less likely than those who attend less frequently to say abortion should be legal in all or most cases (39 percent vs. 62 percent) … which I think is significant,” Jones said.
“A majority of Catholics overall (52 percent) say at least some health care professionals in their community should provide legal abortions, but there are strong disagreements by frequency of attendance,” he added. “Catholics who attend religious services weekly or more are significantly less likely than those who attend less frequently to agree with this statement (37 percent vs. 63 percent).
“Catholics who attend religious services weekly or more are more than three times as likely to say their views on abortion have become more opposed than supportive (18 percent vs. 5 percent). Catholics who attend less frequently are more evenly divided in reporting changing views (16 percent more supportive, 11 percent more opposed).”
Majorities of Catholics say abortion goes against their personal beliefs — 70 percent of weekly Massgoers and 51 percent of those who attend less frequently, according to Jones.
“One place,” he said, “where there is agreement: Strong majorities of Catholics, regardless of attendance rates, believe that lawmakers are spending too much time on the issue of abortion at the expense of other important issues.”