When Theresa M. started attending a support group for breast cancer survivors, she didn’t expect political issues like abortion to be a part of the conversation. But since last summer, when her home state of Florida — freed from the requirements of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court — began imposing new abortion restrictions, younger women who were newly diagnosed with breast cancer started to voice concerns. “They worry if you find out you’re pregnant, you might have to stop your cancer treatment,” said Theresa, who is 58 and asked that her full name be withheld for personal reasons. “For some kinds of cancer, that’s a death sentence. But not an immediate death sentence, so you don’t get an abortion.”
Like many other Americans, Theresa’s views on abortion crystallized in the aftermath of last summer’s ruling, becoming sharper and harder to reshape. An issue that was once seen primarily as a mobilizing force for the religious right has risen to the forefront at the state and national level. And as the one-year anniversary of Dobbs approaches, many Americans are more supportive of abortion rights than they’ve been in decades.
When the Supreme Court overturned the federal right to abortion, between 50 and 60 percent of Americans wanted the right to stay in place. But while abortion was legal throughout the country up to a certain point in pregnancy, Americans had the luxury of not having strong or cohesive views on the topic, or thinking much about abortion at all. Their views were messy and sometimes contradictory, and there was little evidence suggesting that the issue was a political priority for anyone except Christian conservatives. In the fall of 2021, with the Dobbs case looming on the horizon, many Americans thought that Roe wasn’t in real danger.
Now, a FiveThirtyEight analysis finds that after one of the most disruptive Supreme Court decisions in generations, many Americans — including women, young people, and Democrats — are reporting more liberal views on abortion than major pollsters have seen in years. Even conservatives, although the changes are slight, are increasingly supportive of abortion rights. There are other signs that longstanding views are shifting: For instance, Americans are more open to the idea of unrestricted third-trimester abortion than they were even a year ago. And although it’s hard to predict what will shape upcoming elections, there are indications that abortion has the potential to be a major motivator for some Americans when they go to vote in 2024.
Women, young people and Democrats are veering left
Even before last summer, there was some evidence that Americans’ views were getting slightly more liberal on abortion, driven mainly by Democrats who were increasingly likely to say that abortion should be legal (and also more likely to prioritize the issue politically). But when asked about their opinions, most chose a middle-ground option that allowed for abortions in at least some cases, and their ambivalence about the issue was clearly visible in other questions. Legal abortion was consistently much more popular in the first trimester than later in pregnancy. Majorities of Americans were simultaneously OK with some restrictions on abortion access, while saying they wanted women to obtain legal abortion in their own communities, without pressure to change their mind.
But over the past couple years, views have shifted. FiveThirtyEight gathered every poll that asked a standard question about abortion — whether it should be legal in all cases, legal in some cases, illegal in some cases, or illegal in all cases — since September 2021, and found that the share of American adults who want abortion to be legal in at least some cases is rising, and the share of Americans who want abortion to be illegal in all cases is falling.
Trend polling from Gallup gives us a glimpse of what’s happening beneath the surface. The share of women, young people (ages 18-34), and Democrats who think abortion should be legal in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy rose between 10 and 20 percentage points in just five years, a huge amount of movement for an issue that’s historically been quite stable. Liz Hamel, director of public opinion and survey research at KFF, said that something similar happened with public opinion when the Affordable Care Act was threatened by Republicans. “When there’s a threat that something might be taken away, or in this case a right that’s been taken away, that rallies the groups that were most supportive to begin with to increase their levels of support,” she said.
Not all of these changes appear to have happened at the same time, signaling opinion didn’t just change in the past year. For example, the uptick in support for legal first-trimester abortion among Democrats occurred between 2018 and 2022. That shift coincides with an aggressive change of strategy that began in 2019, when Republican states began passing increasingly restrictive anti-abortion legislation in the hope of taking on Roe directly before a friendlier Supreme Court. And in September 2021, the possibility that the nearly 50-year-old precedent might be in danger became real to many Americans when the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc allowed a six-week abortion ban to go into effect in Texas, flouting the standard set by Roe.
“Some increase in support for legalization was evident prior to Dobbs … particularly among Democrats,” said Lydia Saad, director of U.S. Social Research for Gallup. “But increased support has since accelerated.”
Views are changing, although not as evenly, among other groups too. Gallup found that the share of people with up to a high-school education who want abortion to be legal in the first trimester rose from 49 percent in 2018 to 63 percent in 2023 — the biggest shift of any educational group. Half of self-identified conservatives now think abortion should be legal in the first trimester, up from 39 percent in 2018.
In the past year, there’s been more coverage of how the loss of abortion rights affects ordinary people, as well as future threats to abortion access, which may be shaping people's perspectives. Polling by KFF conducted last month found that awareness of mifepristone, one of two pills commonly used for medication abortion, has doubled since the beginning of the year, with nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Americans saying they had heard of the drug in May, compared to only 31 percent in January. Major knowledge gaps still remain: KFF found that most Americans are unaware that mifepristone, when correctly used, is safer than common drugs like Tylenol or Viagra, and there’s widespread confusion in states where abortion is limited or banned about whether abortion is legal. But the topic is much more ubiquitous than it was a year ago.
“People started having conversations about abortion,” said Tresa Undem, a co-founder of the nonpartisan research firm PerryUndem. “And most Americans support abortion rights so if you’re having a conversation, you’re more likely to encounter pro-choice people and their views and attitudes. You’re learning other viewpoints. And that’s when we see attitudes starting to change.”
Perhaps most crucially for Republican politicians, who have mostly doubled down on abortion restrictions despite backlash in swing states during the 2022 midterms, no subgroup in Gallup’s data has become notably more conservative on first-trimester abortion since Dobbs. The KFF poll found that Americans are much more likely to say that the Democratic Party best represents their views on abortion (42 percent), rather than the Republican Party (26 percent).
And a YouGov/CBS News poll conducted earlier this month found that the 57 percent of Americans who think the Dobbs decision has mostly been bad for the country aren’t just worried about the impact on abortion access: 81 percent of that group saw the ruling as bad because a constitutional right was taken away. Steve Baker, 63, lives in Ohio and is registered as a Republican but identifies as an independent. He said that to him, the demise of Roe felt like the canary in the coal mine. “Losing the right to abortion is just the trickle as we start to lose more individual rights,” he said. “The right to marry. Other rights. What’s happening with abortion is important, don’t get me wrong, but I feel concerned about those too.”
More people think third-trimester abortion should be legal
One of the most surprising post-Dobbs trends is the speed with which some Americans have embraced the view that abortion should be legal with no restrictions at all times, including the late second trimester and early third trimester. Under Roe and the precedents that followed, states were free to enact restrictions on abortion after a fetus could potentially live outside a woman’s body — which meant, in practice, that some states were allowed to ban abortion after about 20 weeks of pregnancy, although medical experts say that viability usually happens between 23 and 26 weeks. That dividing line wasn’t especially controversial. Many blue states, including major Democratic strongholds like California, restricted abortion after viability, and the vast majority of Americans believed that abortion should be mostly illegal in the third trimester of pregnancy.
That’s changing — and fast. Third-trimester abortion is still unpopular overall, but in Gallup’s polling, it has close to majority support among some subgroups, which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. For example, the share of women who think abortion should be legal in the last trimester of pregnancy jumped from 11 percent in 2018 to 25 percent in 2023. One-third (33 percent) of people ages 18-34 think abortion should be legal in the last trimester, up from 14 percent in 2018. And a stunning 43 percent of Democrats think abortion should be legal in the third trimester, up from 18 percent in 2018. “I’ve become more solidified in the belief that there should be very little law around any abortion,” said Meredith MacVittie, 41, who lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia. “If there were some regulations on abortion after 30 weeks, something like a second opinion, maybe that would be okay.” She paused and added, “It’s very hard for me to give up the sense that politicians just shouldn’t be having a say in this decision at all.”
Prior to Dobbs, Americans like MacVittie didn’t have a lot of reasons to think about why someone would want a later abortion, or what would be involved in getting one. Abortions after 20 weeks are rare — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 1 percent of abortions performed in 2020 occurred after 21 weeks’ gestation — and highly stigmatized. But the wave of bans that went into effect across the South in 2022 included very few exceptions, suddenly making it difficult or impossible for women in later stages of pregnancy to obtain abortions for health reasons or because of fatal fetal abnormalities. Americans were inundated with stories of women forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term, and tales of people who nearly died because they couldn’t receive an abortion that doctors said was medically necessary. As a result, some Americans are increasingly unwilling to let states draw any lines — a shift that could defang one of the Republican Party’s most effective attacks on legal abortion, which focuses on recent attempts in blue states to loosen abortion restrictions in late pregnancy.
“With later pregnancies, abortion becomes a tough conversation,” said August S., a 23-year-old who lives in Chicago and who asked that his full name be withheld for professional reasons. “But the people who would get abortions in those late trimesters aren’t doing it just to have an abortion. It’s for medical reasons. So I wouldn’t put any restrictions on it.”
Americans are thinking about abortion when they vote
Over the past few months, seven Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed restrictions or bans on abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy — despite the fact that Americans in states where abortion is limited want access to be more available, not less. A poll conducted in late March and early April by the Pew Research Center found that people in areas of the country where abortion is restricted or illegal are likelier than they were four years ago to say that abortion should be easier, not harder, to obtain. The same survey found that 62 percent of Americans — including 39 percent of Republicans — think states are making it too hard, rather than too easy, to get an abortion.
Those findings are part of the reason why abortion is unlikely to fade from voters’ minds as the next major election cycle rears its head. But there are also signs that the issue is becoming personal for many people in a way that it wasn’t before, which could make it harder for abortion rights to fade into the background as other issues, like the economy, come to the fore.
The Dobbs ruling didn’t just change laws — it changed people’s lives. Data collected by #WeCount, a research project led by the Society of Family Planning, and analyzed by FiveThirtyEight estimates that tens of thousands of people were displaced to other states for abortions in the first nine months after the Supreme Court’s decision, and thousands more were unable to receive a legal abortion at all. But polling also shows that people are shifting their behavior in other ways. That KFF survey conducted in May found that reproductive-age women are taking more precautions around pregnancy because of concerns about their ability to access abortion: About 3 in 10 women between the ages of 18 and 49 say that they or someone they know has started using long-term contraceptives or stocked up on emergency contraceptives, and about 1 in 5 delayed getting pregnant, while a similar number got permanently sterilized.
This lines up with other findings from PerryUndem. In a poll conducted shortly after the decision in July 2022, PerryUndem found that 47 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 44 said that Dobbs made them think about what they would do if they needed an abortion or about their own risk of death if they got pregnant (43 percent). More recently, that YouGov/CBS News poll found that 53 percent of women think becoming pregnant in the U.S. is more dangerous now than it was before Roe was overturned — a view that’s much more common among Democratic women (71 percent) than Republican women (26 percent), although relatively few Republican women (28 percent) think becoming pregnant is more safe now. Even Theresa, who is past her reproductive years, said that Dobbs made her think about how her own health might have been endangered by abortion bans, if they’d been in place when she was having children. “I had a miscarriage and was able to get what is technically an abortion,” she said. “And now — I just think about what it would be like to wait in a parking lot until I was septic before I could have that procedure.”
Perhaps as a result, abortion is gaining much broader political salience among groups that weren’t traditionally motivated by the issue. PerryUndem found that between June and July 2022, groups like suburban women and independent women were increasingly likely to say they wanted to act on the issue of abortion. And according to KFF, 30 percent of voters — including almost half (46 percent) of Democrats and more than one-third of women voters (35 percent) say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion. Along those lines, a recent Gallup analysis found that a record-high share of registered voters (28 percent) say that they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion, with voters who identify as “pro-choice” accounting for a greater share of these people than voters who identify as “pro-life.” According to that analysis, Black voters, Democrats and younger women (ages 18-49) are most likely to say that they’re pro-choice and will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion.
“The ruling on [Dobbs] was a great disappointment and has made me very fearful for all my fellow Americans who have been harmed by pro life laws,” Amanda F., 29, who asked that her full name not be used for personal reasons, told me in an email. “Abortion is the issue that I first look for in a political candidate. If they aren't unapologetically pro choice, I am not voting for them.”
The groups that seem disproportionately motivated by abortion rights don’t represent a majority of American voters. But the 2022 midterms signaled that they do have a significant amount of power, particularly if abortion is galvanizing voters who might otherwise feel unenthusiastic about Democratic candidates. A recent analysis of the Latino vote by Equis Research found that Latinos who chose abortion as their top issue were overwhelmingly likely to vote for Democrats, and turned out at rates that were higher than analysts had predicted before the election.
All of these findings suggest that abortion will remain a potent political issue as the 2024 election cycle ramps up — and after years of pushing for more abortion restrictions without much backlash, Republicans are on the defensive. In the wake of the Dobbs decision, the country, and particularly key Democratic constituencies, are more supportive of abortion rights than they’ve been in years, and there’s no sign that the issue is becoming less important to them.