August 3, 2005

Abortion and Rights of Terror Suspects Top Court Issues

Abortion has dominated the early skirmishing over President Bush’s nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court. But the public takes a more expansive view of the court’s agenda. Indeed, about as many Americans rate the rights of detained terrorist suspects as a very important issue for the Supreme Court as say that about abortion.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted before Roberts was nominated, finds that abortion is far more important to ideologically committed partisans at either end of the political spectrum than to moderates and independents. The general public also continues to express somewhat ambivalent views on abortion ­ in contrast to conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.

A consistent majority of Americans (65%) are opposed to overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision establishing a woman’s right to abortion. But most Americans also favor restrictions on abortion. Nearly three-quarters (73%) favor requiring women under age 18 to get parental consent before being allowed to get an abortion.

This ambivalence is reflected in opinions on the overall availability of abortion. About a third (35%) say abortion should be generally available, but 23% favor stricter limits on abortion and 31% favor making it illegal except in cases of rape, incest or to save a woman’s life. Only about one-in-ten (9%) say abortion should never be permitted. Moreover, while nearly six-in-ten (59%) think it would be a good thing to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S., one-third (33%) say they don’t feel this way.

The new study ­ based on separate surveys conducted July 13-17 among 1,502 adults, and July 7-17 among 2,000 adults ­ finds that the public’s views on social issues are complex, defying easy categorization. But religion plays a pivotal role in many of these issues, ranging from stem cell research to gay marriage.

The survey finds continuing strong public support for stem cell research. By nearly two-to-one (57%-30%), the public believes that it is more important to conduct stem cell research that may result in new medical cures than to not destroy the potential life of embryos involved in such research. Support for stem cell research has been growing among major religious groups ­ with the notable exception of white evangelical Protestants. Only about a third of white evangelicals (32%) support such research, compared with large majorities of seculars (77%), mainline Protestants (70%) and white Catholics (61%).

A clear majority of the public (68%) continues to support the death penalty for persons convicted or murder, but only 37% think the death penalty should be applied to people who committed capital offenses as minors. While members of the major religious traditions differ over the death penalty generally ­ with Protestants more supportive than Catholics ­ comparable majorities of religious groups oppose the use of the death penalty for minors convicted of murder.

The public remains divided over how far physicians should be allowed to go in ending the lives of terminally ill patients. About half (51%) favor letting doctors give such patients the means with which to end their lives, but there is less support for physicians being allowed to help dying patients commit suicide (44%).

And while a majority of Americans (53%) oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, support for gay marriage is at its highest point since July 2003. For the first time, a majority (53%) favors permitting gays and lesbians to enter into legal arrangements that would give them many of the same rights as married couples.

Varying Opinions on Life Issues

The general public takes varying, and at times contradictory, attitudes toward the issues that constitute the so-called “culture of life.” This also is the case for members of major religious traditions.

White evangelical Protestants overwhelmingly adopt a pro-life stance on abortion: 68% believe abortion should not be permitted at all, or should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest or to save the woman’s life. A smaller majority of white evangelicals (58%) oppose making it legal for doctors to give terminally ill patients the means to end their lives.

In the case of stem cell research, half of white evangelicals say it is more important to avoid destroying the potential life of human embryos than to conduct stem cell research that may lead to new medical cures. At the same time, white evangelicals strongly support the death penalty for those convicted of murder; just 15% oppose the death penalty.

White Catholics also have inconsistent attitudes on life issues. Roughly four-in-ten take a pro-life stance on abortion (43%) and in opposing physicians being permitted to help dying patients to end their lives (42%). Just three-in-ten white Catholics (29%) say it is more important to avoid destroying the potential life of human embryos in stem cell research than to conduct research that may result in new medical cures. And about the same number (27%) oppose the death penalty.

For their part, seculars overwhelmingly dissent from pro-life positions on abortion, stem cell research and end-of-life questions. More seculars than white evangelicals or mainline Protestants oppose the death penalty for convicted murderers; still, only about three-in-ten (29%) express this view.

Court Issues: Beyond Abortion

Among the possible issues facing the Supreme Court, abortion is viewed as very important by large numbers of liberal Democrats (80%) and conservative Republicans (73%). White evangelical Protestants also place great emphasis on this issue (75%).

For liberal Democrats, no other issue rivals abortion in importance. But conservatives and white evangelicals rate several issues highly. While three-quarters of white evangelicals view abortion as very important, nearly as many place great importance on court rulings on the rights of detained terrorist suspects (69%), and whether to permit religious displays on government property (68%).

Abortion is a major issue for those at either end of the political spectrum, but it also is viewed as very important by younger women. Roughly three-quarters (76%) of women under age 50 rate abortion as a very important issue for the court; far fewer males in that age group (58%) see abortion as a high priority. Women under age 50 also are far more likely than older women to attach great importance to possible court rulings on abortion.

Decades of Division

Through more than 30 years of attention to abortion in policy debates and Supreme Court nominations, public opinion on the issue has remained remarkably stable. This is the case with both views of the availability of abortion, and of the Roe v. Wade decision establishing women’s right to abortion. (For more on attitudes toward Roe v. Wade, see “Supreme Court’s Image Declines as Nomination Battle Looms,” June 15).

The overall pattern of opinion is similar on both issues. Members of both political parties are divided in views of the availability of abortion. Nearly two-thirds of liberal Democrats (64%) believe abortion should be generally available to those who want it. That compares with only about a third of moderate and conservative Democrats (34%).

About one-in-five conservative Republicans (22%) believe abortion should not be permitted at all; just 1% of moderate and liberal Republicans agree. And roughly twice as many conservative Republicans as GOP liberals and moderates say abortion should be banned, or allowed only in cases of incest, rape or to protect the life of the woman (71% vs. 36%).

There also are wide differences among religious groups over this question. Most seculars (60%) believe abortion should be generally available, and a plurality of white mainline Protestants agree. About two-thirds of white evangelicals (68%) believe abortion should not be permitted or allowed only in cases of rape, incest or to save the woman’s life. White Catholics are deeply divided over abortion, with about three-in-ten (31%) it should be generally available, and 43% saying it should be banned or only legal in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

A plurality of college graduates (46%) say abortion should be generally available, while just 29% of those with a high school education express that view. But there are no significant gender differences in these opinions. And while women under age 50 are much more likely than men in that age group to view abortion as a very important issue for the Supreme Court, they hold similar views concerning the availability of abortion.

Morality of Abortion

The public also is deeply split over the moral implications of abortion. A plurality (41%) thinks abortion is wrong in some circumstances; 29% feel abortion is morally wrong in nearly all circumstances; and about a quarter (26%) believe that abortion is not a moral issue.

A large majority (60%) of those who believe that abortion is morally wrong in nearly all circumstances support overturning the Roe v. Wade decision.

In contrast, 91% those who believe abortion is not a moral issue overwhelmingly favor continued access to abortion.

Those with mixed views on the morality of abortion strongly oppose overturning Roe v. Wade. But many with this opinion favor stricter limits on abortion, with roughly a third (35%) saying abortion should be against the law except in cases of rape, incest, and to save the woman’s life.

Reduce Number of Abortions

Regardless of their views on the legality of abortion, most Americans (59%) believe it would be a good thing to reduce the number of abortions. However, a sizable minority (33%) disagrees.

Nearly three-quarters of Republicans (72%) say it would be good to reduce the number of abortions, compared with smaller majorities of independents (55%) and Democrats (51%). Those who are married are much more likely than unmarried people to say it would be a good thing to reduce the number of abortions (by 66%-50%). And a narrow majority of seculars (51%) feel it would not be a good thing to decrease the number of abortions.

Broad Support for Parental Consent

As has been the case for more than a decade, most of the public favors requiring women under age 18 to obtain the consent of at least one parent before being allowed to get an abortion. Nearly three-quarters of Americans (73%) support such a requirement, while just 22% are opposed. Like other opinions on abortion, views on this issue have changed little over the years ­ in 1992, an identical percentage favored requiring young women to obtain parental consent before being permitted to get an abortion.

Large majorities in all major religious groups ­ and fully two-thirds of seculars (67%) ­ believe that women under 18 should receive parental consent before being able to obtain an abortion. However, liberal Democrats are divided on this issue; 50% favor requiring young women to get the consent of at least one parent before getting an abortion, but 44% are opposed. By contrast, there is strong sentiment in favor of requiring parental consent among moderate and conservative Democrats (72%), and overwhelming support among conservative Republicans (94%) and moderate and liberal Republicans (81%).

Access to “Morning After” Pill

There is less public agreement on allowing women to obtain the so-called “morning after pill” without a doctor’s prescription. Anti-abortion groups argue that the morning after pill induces an abortion because the drug can cause the body to reject a newly fertilized egg; supporters of abortion rights say the pill constitutes emergency contraception.

Most Americans (52%) favor allowing women to get the morning after pill without a doctor’s prescription, while 37% are opposed. Groups that are most supportive of keeping abortion generally available ­ seculars and liberal Democrats ­ also strongly favor allowing easier access to the morning after pill (77% of seculars, 72% of liberal Democrats).

Similarly, the same groups that strongly oppose abortion ­ conservative Republicans and white evangelical Protestants ­ also oppose making it easier for women to get the morning after pill (58% of conservative Republicans, 52% of white evangelicals). There also is a modest gender divide in views of the morning after pill, with men somewhat more supportive than women of allowing greater access to this drug (56% of men vs. 48% of women).

No Conflict Between Abstinence, Birth Control

Debates over sex education in schools often pit abstinence instruction against providing students information on birth control methods. But the public sees no conflict in pursuing both of these approaches: 78% favor allowing public schools to provide students with birth control information; nearly as many (76%) believe schools should teach teenagers to abstain from sex until marriage.

Solid majorities in every major religious group say schools should be allowed to provide students with information on birth control methods. But a sizable minority of white evangelical Protestants (30%) are opposed.

White evangelicals also are among the most supportive of having public schools teach teenagers to abstain from sex until marriage. Seculars express the greatest reservations to schools promoting abstinence; 62% support that approach, while roughly a third (34%) are opposed.

The youngest Americans ­ those ages 18-24 ­ are highly supportive of schools both promoting abstinence and providing information about birth control. Roughly eight-in-ten (83%) favor schools providing birth control information, while 75% think schools should teach teenagers to abstain from sex until marriage.

Most Favor Stem Cell Research

Public awareness of, and support for, stem cell research appears to be leveling off, after showing significant gains from 2002 to 2004. Currently, 48% say they have heard a lot about the issue, which is little changed since last December (47%).

More Americans continue to say it is more important to conduct stem cell research that might result in new medical cures than to avoid destroying the potential life of human embryos involved in such research (by 57% to 30%). That is about the same level of support for stem cell research as last December, but up modestly since August 2004 (52%). Three years ago, in March 2002, just 43% supported stem cell research.

As in the past, greater awareness of the stem cell debate is associated with support for stem cell research. Roughly two-thirds of those who have heard a lot about the issue (68%) believe it is more important to conduct stem cell research than to not destroy the potential life of embryos. That compares with 49% of those who have heard a little about the issue, and just a third of those who are unfamiliar with the debate over stem cell research.

Where Support Has Grown

Three years ago, Americans were only dimly aware of ­ and fairly evenly divided over ­ stem cell research. Since then, support for this research has grown among most demographic and political groups. The shift has been most striking among middle-aged Americans (ages 50-64), high school graduates, mainline Protestants and white Catholics, and liberal Democrats. There are some exceptions to this pattern, however. Just a third of conservative Republicans say it is more important to conduct stem cell research, virtually the same percentage as in March 2002 (32%).

Over the same period, moderate and liberal Republicans have become more supportive of stem cell research; as a result, the gap between conservative Republicans and GOP moderates and liberals has grown from 16 points to 29 points. White evangelical Protestants also remain opposed to stem cell research. About a third (32%) favor such research today, while 50% are opposed. Three years ago, 26% of evangelicals backed stem cell research.

What Shapes Stem Cell Views?

Supporters and opponents of stem cell research draw on very different sources when thinking about the issue. Roughly half (52%) of opponents say their religious beliefs are the biggest influence on their thinking, while 13% cite what they have seen or read in the media and 12% mention their education.

Conservative Republican opponents are especially likely (70%) to cite religion as their main influence, as are evangelical Protestant opponents (69%).

Among supporters, 31% say the biggest influence on their thinking is the media, and 28% mention their education. Just 7% say religion is the most important influence. College graduates (44%) who favor the research are particularly likely to name education as their primary influence, as are pro-research liberal Democrats (43%).

Physician-Assisted Suicide

A narrow majority of Americans (51%) favor making it legal for doctors to give terminally ill patients the means to end their lives. As in past Pew surveys, there is less support (44%) for physicians actually aiding such patients in committing suicide. Attitudes on these end-of-life issues have changed very little since July 2003.

There continue to be clear differences among major religious groups in views of how far physicians should be permitted to go in assisting terminally ill patients to end their lives. Majorities of seculars and white mainline Protestants favor allowing physicians to give the terminally ill the means to end their lives, and to assist such patients in committing suicide. White Catholics are divided over these issues, while white evangelical Protestants are widely opposed to doctors taking any measures to help terminally ill patients to end their lives.

Men also are more supportive than women of allowing physicians to end the lives of their terminally ill patients. A majority of men (55%) favor making it legal for doctors to give such patients the means to end their lives; 47% of women agree. There is a comparable gender gap in views of physician-assisted suicide.

Looking Back at Schiavo Case

Four months after Congress passed legislation transferring jurisdiction in the Terri Schiavo case to the federal courts, the overwhelming majority of Americans (74%) indicate that Congress should not have involved itself in the matter. White evangelical Protestants are more supportive of Congress’s actions than are members of other religious groups, conservatives are more supportive than moderates and liberals, and Republicans are more supportive than Democrats and independents. But even among these groups, large majorities (69% of white evangelicals, 68% of conservatives and 65% of Republicans) believe that Congress should have stayed out of the case.

Death Penalty, But Not for Minors

Roughly two-thirds of Americans (68%) support the death penalty for people convicted of murder, up slightly from two years ago (64%). However, public support for the death penalty was greater in the late 1990s (74% in 1999).

But most Americans continue to oppose the death penalty for minors. By 54%-37%, the public opposes the death penalty for those who have been convicted of murder when they are under age 18. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in such cases, citing a “national consensus” on the issue.

The pattern of opinion on applying the death penalty to minors is quite different than for the death penalty generally. For instance, there are only modest gender differences, at most, in support for the death penalty (70% of men, 66% of women). But there is a sizable gender gap in attitudes toward the death penalty for those convicted of murder who are under age 18; 47% of men support the death penalty for minors, compared with only about a quarter of women (27%).

And while there are significant differences among religious groups in views of the overall application of the death penalty, there is striking agreement in opinions on the death penalty for those under age 18. Only about four-in-ten white evangelicals, mainline Protestants, white Catholics and seculars favor the death penalty under these circumstances.

Modest Increase in Gay Marriage Support

Public support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally has rebounded a bit after declining between 2003 and 2004. Today, 36% of Americans favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry, up from 32% in December 2004. The percentage favoring gay civil unions has risen as well. Currently, 53% favor allowing gays and lesbians to enter into legal arrangements providing them with many of the same rights as married couples; that compares with 48% last August.

Support for gay marriage and gay civil unions has increased slightly among most religious groups. However, support for civil unions has increased significantly among white evangelical Protestants, from 26% in December 2004 to 35% today. This increase, however, is concentrated primarily among low-commitment evangelicals, a majority of whom now support civil unions.

There remain substantial divisions in views of gay marriage and civil unions across political groups. Nearly seven-in-ten liberals support gay marriage and eight-in-ten support civil unions, up from 59% and 70%, respectively in 2004. Among conservatives, however, support for gay marriage stands at 14%, and support for civil unions has actually declined slightly (from 35% in 2004 to 31% today).

Similarly, Democrats and independents are more supportive of gay marriage and civil unions today than they were a year ago, and remain much more supportive of both proposals than are Republicans.

In line with these findings, there has also been a slight decline (from 35% in August 2004 to 29% today) in the number of Americans expressing support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

About the Survey

Results for this report are based on two separate telephone surveys conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. The first survey is among a nationwide sample of 1,502 adults, 18 years of age or older, from July 13-17, 2005. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For results based on Form 1 (N=751) or Form 2 (N=751) only, the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Results for second survey are based on telephone interviews among a nationwide sample 2,000 adults, 18 years of age or older, from July 7-17, 2005. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. For results based on Form 1 (N=1,000) or Form 2 (N=1,000) only, the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

Cite this publication: Joseph Liu. “Abortion and Rights of Terror Suspects Top Court Issues.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (August 3, 2005) http://www.pewforum.org/2005/08/03/abortion-and-rights-of-terror-suspects-top-court-issues/, accessed on July 23, 2014.