America’s views on abortion remain steady — its laws are a different story
While the position of today’s Supreme Court on abortion remains unclear, the majority of American women and men, approximately 60 percent, say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases and even a larger majority, 70 percent, would not like to see the court overturn its Roe v. Wade decision.
Those percentages have remained largely unchanged since the court’s landmark decision on abortion rights. In addition, the proportion of Americans saying abortion should be illegal in all circumstances has been approximately 20 percent but has varied between 13 to 23 percent over the past several decades.
On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade ruled that a Texas statute forbidding abortion except when necessary to save the life of the mother was unconstitutional. Despite that historic decision, abortion remains a sensitive, emotional and moral question in America, as well as being a divisive political issue across the country’s 50 states.
An increasing number of states such as Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas have passed or are about to adopt abortion restricting legislation. That legislation includes waiting periods, parental consent laws and limiting access to abortion medication.
The law in Florida, for example, bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. This is a rollback established by Roe v. Wade that protects the right to abortion until a fetus is viable outside the woman, currently approximately 23 weeks. The legislation in Oklahoma outlaws almost all abortions in the state and makes it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to perform an abortion in that state.
In contrast, states such as California, Colorado, Connecticut, New York, Oregon and Vermont have enacted or are proceeding with laws to ensure abortion rights. Those laws include additional funding, patient protections, increased training and access to abortion medication.
In Vermont, for example, lawmakers are moving forward with an amendment to the state’s constitution guaranteeing the right to an abortion. California is pushing for legislation to increase funds for abortion providers, reduce barriers to abortions, strengthen laws protecting abortion patients and has passed legislation eliminating out-of-pocket costs for abortion services.
Abortion medication was approved for usage in 2000 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The medication accounted for more than 54 percent of abortions in 2020.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA permitted access to abortion medication via telehealth and the option to receive the medication by mail using online services. In December the FDA made a decision to keep that access to abortion medication permanent.
Some states, including Georgia, Kentucky, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota and Tennessee, aim to reverse the FDA’s December decision. Since the start of 2022, lawmakers in at least 20 states have proposed bills restricting or banning access to FDA-approved abortion medication.
In contrast to America’s political struggle with abortion rights, most nations are not against abortion. Countries vary in their abortion policies depending on the specific grounds. Abortions are permitted in 98 percent of countries to save the life of the woman, 72 percent for a woman’s physical health, 60 percent for rape, incest or fetal impairment and 34 percent at the woman’s request.
Most developed countries allow abortion on request or on broad social grounds. In Europe, for example, more than 95 percent of women of reproductive age live in countries allowing abortion on request or social grounds.
Over the past five decades, an unmistakable global trend has occurred in the liberalization of abortion laws. The trend has coincided with a decline in abortion rates and increased contraceptive usage worldwide.
However, even when abortions are restricted, illegal abortions take place in relatively large numbers. Approximately 8 percent of maternal deaths globally are the result of complications from unsafe abortions, with nearly all taking place in developing countries.
In the United States, the abortion rate declined from a peak in 1980 of about 30 per 1,000 women in ages 15 to 44 years to about 11 per 1,000 women in 2019. In addition, nearly 80 percent of abortions in 2018 were performed at 9 weeks or less gestation and 92 percent were performed at 13 weeks or less gestation. The declines in the abortion rate were statistically correlated to the increased access to contraceptives.
In several months, the Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling regarding whether current state legislation restricting access to abortion conflicts with the court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on the constitutional right to abortion. In particular, the court has before it the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which concerns Mississippi’s ban on most abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy.
Some expect the court to uphold the Mississippi law, which would topple the 1973 abortion rights decision, thereby permitting states to restrict or ban abortion. Such a ruling, some contend, will likely damage the court’s legitimacy by appearing to be unduly politically influenced, thereby posing an existential threat to the court.
Others believe the court’s decision will be open to legal interpretation and litigation. Months would be needed to determine the decision’s impact on abortion rights and would likely lead to further litigation actions.
Whether the 2022 Supreme Court will reaffirm, overturn, or reinterpret the 1973 court decision remains unclear. However, at least two things are clear today concerning abortion in America.
First, the majority of American women and men do not want the Supreme Court to overturn its 1973 abortion rights decision and support abortion rights established by the court close to half a century ago.
And second, irrespective of the court’s upcoming decision, legislation by states, positions of elected officials and platforms of political parties, abortion will continue to be a practice in America for the foreseeable future.
Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and the author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.”