Commentary: What Americans Think About Abortion


Commentary: What Americans Think About Abortion

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – The recent opaque U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding one of Indiana’s abortion laws sent the tea-leaf readers into overdrive.

America’s high court ruled that abortion providers could be forced by the state to bury or cremate fetal remains. But it refused to comment on the portion of the state law that would have criminalized abortion if the mother chose to end the pregnancy because of the fetus’s race or because it would be born with certain birth defects. That means a lower court ruling striking down that portion of the law stands.

John Krull, publisher,

The ruling itself might not have sparked much comment at another time.

But since Alabama, Missouri, Georgia, and Louisiana, among other states, have engaged in a race to get the most draconian abortion laws possible on the books in hopes of overturning Roe vs. Wade, every abortion case before the Supreme Court now receives the most intense scrutiny.

Both sides in the white-hot reproductive rights debate could discern smoke signals that seemed to support their position.

The fact that the court decided to allow states to impose an additional burden on Planned Parenthood reassured the anti-abortion crowd. And the justices’ refusal to allow the state to thought-police women seeking abortions offered consolation to those who believe in reproductive rights.

The thinking on both sides seems to be that we’re headed for a high-stakes, winner-take-all legal battle regarding abortion.

But what if they’re wrong?

What if the justices are trying to do what America’s politicians either have failed to do or really haven’t even tried to do?

What if the court is looking for a way to interpret the law that reflects what Americans really believe regarding abortion?

A study of the polls over the past few decades reveals a remarkable consistency. The reality is that Americans’ thinking about abortion hasn’t changed much over the years.

Just under 30 percent of Americans say they support abortion in any circumstances. Just under 20 percent say they oppose abortion under any circumstance.

Those are the extremes in the debate – and, as is so often the case in America these days, they are the ones driving and dominating the discussion.

They do this even though neither group represents anything close to a majority.

Beyond those extremes, though, there are points that reflect something closer to consensus.

Over the years, somewhere between 60 percent and 70 percent of Americans have said they believe abortion should be legal. A little more than half, though, say there should be some restrictions on ending a pregnancy.

In other words, most Americans want abortion to be an option, but they want some limits on that option.

The question is: Where should those lines be drawn?

Again, the polls offer some insight.

Most Americans – between 80 and 90 percent – believe abortion is justified to protect the life of the mother. Nearly two-thirds support ending a pregnancy in the first trimester. Another strong majority supports abortion in cases of rape or incest.

Support for abortion as an option, though, drops as the pregnancy progresses. Most Americans oppose abortion in the second and third trimesters.

But, again, their positions aren’t unqualified.

Majorities of Americans ranging from slightly more than 50 percent to more than 80 percent support abortion even in the third trimester if the mother’s life is in danger, if the child will be born with a life-threatening illness, if the baby will have a birth defect or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

All this makes clear that Americans have nuanced, even sophisticated understandings of the moral and ethical challenges abortion presents.

Unfortunately, that nuance and sophistication rarely are reflected in the political debate over reproductive rights.

That’s going to be the case so long as we allow the most strident voices on both sides to hog the conversation. We’ll continue to have fight after fight after fight, but no victories.

And no solutions.

Maybe, just maybe, the Supreme Court will try to change that.

Let’s hope.

FOOTNOTE: John Krull is the director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

This article was posted by the City-County Observer without bias or editing.