A Real-Life Handmaid’s Tale? Forty Percent of Americans Say Abortion Could Be Illegal in Their Lifetime
by Carolyn Davis
The possibility that Roe v. Wade could be repealed, triggering a return to a ban on most abortion procedures in the United States, has perhaps never been a more live topic than it is right now. Arkansas is poised to be the eighth state in the U.S. to have just a single abortion clinic left, after the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to a law banning medication abortions in the state. This law joins other highly restrictive state-level abortion regulations now in effect across the country. Many abortion access advocates argue that these laws are intentionally designed to provoke a challenge to Roe.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has proposed new regulations denying federal funds to family planning clinics that share space with abortion providers or refer patients for abortions. And popular shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror are exploring dystopian futures characterized by forced reproduction and criminalized abortion, giving creative outlet to cultural anxieties.
A national PRRI survey released in April found that national attitudes supporting abortion access are poised to grow more favorable as more young people emerge as political actors. Approximately one-third of young Americans age 18–29 say their views on abortion have changed in recent years, and nearly three times as many say their views have become more supportive of abortion rather than more opposed to abortion (25 percent vs. 9 percent). Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of young people, compared to 51 percent of seniors age 65 and older, agree that abortion should be legal in most or all cases.
Despite this trend of support among young Americans and the fact that Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land for over four decades, about four in ten (38 percent) of Americans overall believe that it is at least somewhat likely that abortion will become completely illegal in the U.S. in their lifetime. This view cuts across party, age, gender, and region, a fact that is perhaps unsurprising given repeated efforts to curb abortion access in states across the U.S. ever since Roe.
President Trump and Vice President Pence have repeatedly championed stronger abortion restrictions since taking office. This is likely designed to appeal directly to their steadfast white evangelical base, whose outsized opposition to abortion compared to majority support for abortion among all Americans has also been the driver for state-level abortion restrictions. Still, white evangelicals are about as likely as Americans in general (34 percent vs 38 percent, respectively) to think a total abortion ban is possible. Many white evangelicals would celebrate an outright abortion ban as not only a major political victory but also a confirmation of their resurgent political power.
“Your vote in 2018 is every bit as important as your vote in 2016,” Trump said recently in a speech before the anti-abortion activist organization Susan B. Anthony List.
Trump’s words do have some resonance, as protecting or eliminating abortion access ultimately turns on a Supreme Court-level challenge to Roe. But could the record number of female Democratic candidates entering electoral races and currently dominating many key primaries across the country prove a bulwark against increased abortion restrictions and corresponding efforts to overturn Roe?
Recent PRRI polling showed that more than seven in 10 Democratic women agree that abortion should be legal in all or most cases compared to just over half of Americans overall (54 percent).
While PRRI polling also indicated that Republicans and Democrats are about as equally likely to vote in the 2018 midterms, it revealed a notable Democratic lean. When asked if they preferred the Republican or Democratic candidate in the 2018 congressional election, almost four in ten independents leaned towards a Democratic candidate, as did Americans overall by a six-point margin.
With about four in 10 Americans continuing to see a total abortion ban as a possibility, reproductive healthcare access will no doubt continue to influence political messaging on both sides in the coming months.
Carolyn Davis is the Director of Strategic Engagement at PRRI. Follow her on Twitter at @carojdavis.