Opinion polls reveal some cognitive dissonance in Americans’ minds concerning abortion laws. Although most Americans say they support Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, most also favor significant abortion restrictions. Why the seeming inconsistency?

First, some background. In Roe, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion is protected under the U.S. Constitution. This decision struck down many state laws that had restricted abortion. It also severely limited the extent to which states could write their own abortion laws. The Court correlated the permissibility of different kinds of abortions to the three trimesters of pregnancy:

  • First trimester: States cannot restrict abortion.
  • Second trimester: Regulations designed to protect a pregnant woman’s health, but not to further a state’s interest in potential life, are permitted.
  • Third trimester: States can completely outlaw abortion, except when “necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.”

Under Roe, no restrictions on abortion in the second or third trimesters are mandated and are forbidden in the first trimester. Therefore, abortion through all nine months of pregnancy is the default unless Congress or the individual states pass laws restricting it.

Planned Parenthood v. Casey did away with Roe’s trimester framework and created a new rule: a state cannot impose an “undue burden” on a woman’s attempt to obtain an abortion pre-viability.

National polls indicate strong support for Roe. Sixty percent (Gallup) and 66 percent (NBC News) of Americans support it, while only 29 percent of Americans favor overturning it (NBC News). Roe, then, appears to be a settled court case in the minds of the American people.

However, polls indicate a greater variation in Americans’ opinions when it comes to abortion itself. Only 27 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal “in all cases” (ABC News by Langer Research Associates), and seven in 10 Americans would like to see abortion limited to the first three months of pregnancy at most (Knights of Columbus and Marist). The latter poll found that 52 percent of Americans think women should be required to see an ultrasound of her unborn child prior to receiving an abortion. Furthermore, the poll found that 80 percent of Americans think laws can protect both a mother and her unborn child.

A mere 18 percent of Americans support the legalization of abortion up until birth (NPR and Marist), and 54 percent want to see more restrictions on abortion than there currently are (CBS). Sixty-five percent of Americans support a required 24-hour waiting period for an abortion (The Kaiser Family Foundation). Like the Knights of Columbus and Marist poll, the Kaiser poll found that 52 percent support a mandatory ultrasound viewing by mothers.

Why this seeming inconsistency between the American public’s opinions on Roe and abortion itself? Tim Carney of the American Enterprise Institute posits an answer: a poll’s outcome depends on how the survey questions are asked. Many Americans are unaware of what Roe actually says about abortion, mistakenly believing that it only protects abortion through the first few months of pregnancy. When asked whether they would like to see Roe overturned, most Americans say no, because most Americans are neither entirely pro-life nor pro-choice. Instead, most Americans favor abortion laws that restrict most abortions but provide exceptions for early-term abortions, abortions in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother’s health or life is in grave danger.

Roe v. Wade permits abortion in far more circumstances than these. If survey respondents knew that Roe essentially allows abortion in all cases at any stage in pregnancy up to the moment of birth, support for the court decision would probably plummet among Americans with more moderate views. Americans’ ignorance serves the pro-choice lobby and is likely why polls indicate public support for Roe.

As long as the largely pro-choice mainstream media can convince moderates that Roe v. Wade aligns with their beliefs, the Supreme Court will feel pressured into upholding its 1973 decision despite the fact that it goes against the will of the American people.

To see where your state stacks up on permitting later-term abortion under Roe, see our state-by-state pro-life map.