Support for abortion rights at an all-time high

A majority of Americans say Roe v. Wade should stand. Now activists on both sides are shifting strategies

Published January 22, 2013 1:54PM (EST)

  (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)
(Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that for the first time a majority of Americans, 54 percent, believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The poll also found that 70 percent of Americans said Roe v. Wade shouldn't be overturned, the highest level of support for the landmark decision since 1989.

More people generally support abortion rights, but a majority of voters have views that aren't absolute on the issue. As reported by the Wall Street Journal:

Some 31% of respondents in the poll said abortion should always be legal, and 9% believed it should be illegal without any exceptions. Between those two opinions are the 23% who thought it should be legal most of the time, but with some exceptions, and the 35% who felt it should be illegal except in circumstances of rape, incest and to save a woman's life.

For antiabortion activists, this shift in public attitude has meant changing strategies. Rather than pushing for a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe, lawmakers and campaigners have opted for a piecemeal approach to restricting abortion at the state level. "I don't need a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe," said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, an antiabortion law firm that works with state groups on local legislation. "Clinic regulations do actually challenge Roe."

According to the Guttmacher Institute, lawmakers passed a record 92 measures restricting abortion in 24 states in 2011, and an additional 43 measures in 19 states in 2012. Nine states have recently banned most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and this year, Texas, Indiana, and Missouri are set to consider restrictions on non-surgical, chemically-induced abortions.

Abortion rights advocates have also changed gears to reach the growing middle. Just last week, Planned Parenthood quietly signaled a move away from the "pro-choice" label with a new campaign, "Not In Her Shoes." Their new message seems perfectly tailored to the millions of Americans who support abortion rights, if only to a point:

Most things in life aren’t simple. And that includes abortion.

It’s personal. It can be complicated. And for many people, it’s not a black and white issue.

So why do people try to label it like it is? Pro-choice? Pro-life? The truth is these labels limit the conversation and simply don’t reflect how people actually feel about abortion.

A majority of Americans believe abortion should remain safe and legal. Many just don’t use the words pro-choice. They don’t necessarily identify as pro-life either. Truth is, they just don’t want to be labeled.

What they want is for a woman to have access to safe and legal abortion, if and when she needs it.

The team behind the new abortion rights survey attribute the shift in public opinion to African Americans, Latinos and women without college degrees -- all of whom increasingly oppose the Supreme Court decision being overturned.

The Republicans played their part, too.

According to the poll, the GOP's inflammatory rhetoric over the past year as well as a highly charged debate over contraception helped shaped these changing numbers.

“The dialogue we have had in the last year has contributed … to inform and shift attitudes,” Bill McInturff, the Republican pollster behind the survey, told NBC.


By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Abortion Abortion Rights Reproductive Health Roe V. Wade Women's Health Women's Rights