The Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization transformed the politics of abortion, turning an issue that once mattered mostly to conservative Christians into a powerful voting issue on the left. But new polling suggests that the decision could also be reshaping the way abortion-rights supporters think about the issue — specifically, whether abortion is something that should be regulated by the government at all.
A new and intriguing finding from PerryUndem, a nonpartisan research firm, suggests that a significant chunk of abortion-rights supporters may now oppose any government restrictions on abortion — even limits on later abortion that were largely uncontroversial before Dobbs. The researchers asked 4,037 registered voters if they supported a constitutional amendment establishing reproductive freedom. Half of the sample read an amendment identical to the ballot measure that passed in Michigan in 2022; the other half read the same amendment except the researchers removed language that allowed the state to regulate abortion after viability, or when a fetus can live outside a woman’s body.
PerryUndem found that respondents who received the version of the ballot measure with no government regulations included were 15 percentage points more likely to say they would “definitely” vote for it: Forty-five percent said they would “definitely vote yes” on the version with no restrictions, while 30 percent said they would “definitely vote yes” on the version with a viability restriction. The results were particularly pronounced among Democrats and women of reproductive age (ages 18 to 44), who were much more likely to support the version of the amendment without restrictions.
|Post-viability restriction||No restrictions||Difference|
|Women, age 18-44||34||55||-21|
While just one initial finding, this survey lines up with other public opinion research suggesting that over the past few years, a subset of Americans have gotten more supportive of unrestricted abortion in the late second and early third trimester of pregnancy. That’s a big shift from just a short time ago, when pressing to expand viability limits was a political lightning rod for Democratic politicians in states like New York and Virginia. And if that shift turns out to be real, it may create new opportunities — and new challenges — for abortion-rights supporters who are pushing for ballot measures like the one that passed in Michigan last year.
“Ten years ago, even five years ago, people would for sure have supported a viability requirement,” said Tresa Undem, a co-founder of PerryUndem. Now, she says that in focus groups and surveys, she’s hearing a very different sentiment from abortion-rights supporters. “People are saying, ‘I don’t want the government involved in this at all.’”
Last week, Maine’s Democratic governor signed a bill that allows abortion at any point in pregnancy as long as it’s deemed medically necessary. That’s another sign that the politics of later abortion are changing, because until recently, it was uncontroversial even for blue states to restrict abortion after about 24 weeks of pregnancy. Those restrictions are a big part of the reason why abortions in the late second trimester and early third trimester are so hard to obtain. There are only a handful of abortion clinics in the country that currently provide abortion in the late second and early third trimester of pregnancy, in part because very few states have no gestational restrictions on when an abortion can be performed.
There are signs, though, that some Americans are more supportive of lifting restrictions on later abortion than they were even a few years ago. According to polling by Gallup, the share of Americans who think abortion should be legal in the third trimester rose from 8 percent in 2000 to 22 percent in 2023, an increase that was driven mainly by increasing support among Democrats, young people and women. Polling by Marist College for NPR/PBS NewsHour, which asked about gestational limits as part of a six-part scale, found a very similar trend over the same period of time.
The magnitude of the shift suggests that some kind of change is taking place, even if it’s not clear why. One possibility is that Americans — who were always more supportive of abortion in specific circumstances, like when a woman’s health was at risk or a fetus was nonviable — became more aware about why people get later abortions because of intense media coverage of the issue over the past year. Only a tiny sliver of abortions happen after 20 weeks of pregnancy. In many cases, it’s because women received new information about their pregnancy that they couldn’t have obtained earlier, according to Katrina Kimport, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco who studies later abortions. “There are a heartbreakingly large number of ways a pregnancy can go wrong,” Kimport said.
It’s also possible, though, that watching states across the country ban abortion during the first trimester has made some Americans suspicious of the entire concept of government regulation. “People might be unwilling to consider compromise because they’re not sure where it leads,” Kimport said. That idea is reflected in some of the open-ended responses from the PerryUndem survey. “Does not specify or define fetus viability and could give state too much authority,” one person wrote, in response to a question about whether any aspect of the amendment concerned them. Another person worried “that states will regulate ‘fetal viability’ too heavily.”
The challenge for abortion-rights advocates is that while some Americans may be increasingly turning against the idea of any restriction on abortion, those people are still a minority. In the most recent Marist College/NPR/PBS NewsHour poll that asked about gestational limits, only about one-third of respondents said they think abortion should generally be legal at least during the first six months of pregnancy, while 66 percent think it should at most be legal during the first three months of pregnancy, with exceptions for certain circumstances.
Meanwhile, activists in other states are pressing forward with constitutional amendments that are similar to Michigan’s. In Ohio, a proposed ballot measure for 2023 would establish a constitutional right to abortion, but only up until fetal viability. (A Suffolk University/USA Today poll released Monday found that 58 percent of registered voters would support the measure.) Advocates in Florida are working to get a similar amendment on the ballot for 2024. Both measures include exceptions for situations where a woman’s life or health is threatened by continuing a pregnancy, although the wording is slightly different. Sarah Standiford, national campaign director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which is working on the campaign for Florida’s ballot measure, said that advocates have to consider the “feasibility” of passing measures in specific states. In Florida, for instance, the measure would have to get the support of at least 60 percent of the state’s voters for it to pass — something that could be a tall order without any kind of restriction.
But Undem said that her polling — and other surveys suggesting that public opinion is moving on this issue — should be a reminder of how radically the Dobbs decision disrupted the status quo on abortion. She thinks conventional wisdom about what people will or won’t vote for might need to be reevaluated in the coming years. “It’s natural to think, ‘We need a viability requirement if we’re going to win people over,’” she said. “But we’re in a shifting environment and everyone needs to check their assumptions, because they might not be true.”