The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer has changed the abortion debate in many ways. Mostly, Republicans have struggled to account for their hard-line positions now that they have the ability to enact them, and have retreated from those stances.
And perhaps the epitome of that dynamic is the sudden decline of the no-exceptions abortion opponent.
The Public Religion Research Institute came out Thursday with its regular American Values Survey, which is an extensive, frequent review of where Americans stand on a host of issues. It thus allows us a more complete window into how various issues change over time.
The findings on abortion are particularly striking.
Last decade, the number of Americans overall who said abortion should be illegal in all cases topped out at nearly 2 in every 10 Americans. But today, it’s down to just 8 percent.
Among Republicans, that number has dropped from as high as one-quarter all the way down to 11 percent today. And if you look at the chart, you’ll see when the sharp decline began: in June of this year. That survey was conducted immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
That 11 percent of Republicans who say abortion should be illegal in all cases is now the same as the percentage of Republicans who say abortion should be legal in all cases: 11 percent.
The findings come even as many red states have instituted abortion bans — many of them passed as “trigger laws” for the day when Roe was overturned — that do not have rape and incest exceptions. Nine states have abortion bans in effect with no exceptions for rape and incest.
The poll question did not specifically ask about rape and incest exceptions. It’s likely some who oppose a total ban want only an exception for the life of the mother, or the health of the mother. For instance, a poll this month from NBC News showed 24 percent of Republicans opposed rape and incest exceptions, and only 14 percent oppose exceptions for when the mother’s health is seriously endangered.
But polling has repeatedly shown the vast majority of Republicans support those exceptions, too — even as the party’s legislators have declined to include them in their abortion bans. And the decline on the no-exceptions contingent in the GOP demonstrates how buyer’s remorse could be creeping in for GOP legislators who passed more extreme trigger laws back when this issue was still in the realm of the hypothetical.
Importantly, the PRRI poll isn’t the first to show a significant decline in the no-exceptions contingent in recent months. Fox News polling last year showed 11 percent overall and 19 percent of Republicans said abortion should always be illegal. By September, those numbers were down to 6 percent and 11 percent, respectively — very similar to PRRI’s new data.
(Fox’s poll also showed the numbers began dropping in June — albeit not in a statistically significant way.)
A major question is how much people’s minds have truly changed, and how much of the effect is driven by people suddenly reckoning with what their previously professed hard-line views actually entail. If you say “abortion is murder,” after all, can you justify murder even in cases of rape and incest? That’s not something whose real-world consequences the antiabortion rights crowd had to reckon with, until now.
But for Republicans, the dilemma is the same. They passed a bunch of laws whose particulars are opposed not only by the vast majority of Americans but also by the vast majority of Republicans. Democrats are now using that to their political advantage, which it clearly is — even if it might not help them enough to save the House and Senate.
Though candidates in swing states have tried to tack to the middle, Republicans more generally have shown little appetite thus far for pulling back from their most extreme laws and adding rape and incest exceptions. But now they’ve got more evidence that total abortion bans are decidedly unpopular — and perhaps even more unpopular than we realized over the summer.