October 1, 2009

Support for Abortion Slips

Abortion and Morality

Religious and Moral Influence on the Debate

One-third of Americans (32%) say their religious beliefs are the primary influence on their attitudes toward abortion. Roughly one-in-five cite their education (21%), and one-in-seven point to their personal experience (14%). Fewer say the views of their family and friends (6%) or what they have seen or read in the media (5%) are the main influences on their opinion about abortion, but a sizable proportion (21%) say there is something else that most informs their view.

Religious beliefs hold much stronger sway over those who oppose abortion than over those on the pro-choice side of the abortion issue. More than half of those who say abortion should be illegal (53%) cite religious beliefs as the primary influence on their views, compared with only 11% among supporters of legal abortion. Instead of religion, supporters of legal abortion are much more likely to cite their education (30%) or a personal experience (20%) as the primary influence on their views on abortion.

Women are more apt than men to say that their religious beliefs have the most influence on their views about abortion (36% vs. 28%), and Americans 65 and older are much more likely than young adults to say this (44% among those 65 and older vs. 25% among those under age 30).

Among political groups, 53% of conservative Republicans say their attitudes are based primarily on their religious beliefs, compared with just 22% of moderate or liberal Republicans. More than a third of conservative or moderate Democrats (36%) and 17% of liberal Democrats single out the influence of their religious beliefs.

A majority of white evangelical Protestants (58%) say their religious beliefs drive their views on abortion. This figure approaches seven-in-ten (68%) among white evangelicals who attend services at least weekly. Mainline Protestants are much less likely to cite their religious beliefs (22%), but there is still a strong divide between white mainline Protestants who attend church at least weekly (41%) and those who attend less often (14%). White, non-Hispanic Catholics are similarly divided on the issue, with 60% of those who attend weekly services saying their religious beliefs are the main influence on their abortion views, compared with just 19% of those who attend less regularly. More than one-quarter of religiously unaffiliated Americans (28%) rely most on their education in formulating their opinion on abortion.

Half Say Abortion Is Morally Wrong

Is Having an Abortion Morally Acceptable?

A slight majority of Americans (52%) say having an abortion is morally wrong. One quarter says it is not a moral issue, and just 10% say it is morally acceptable. (The remaining 12% say that the morality of abortion depends on the situation or refuse to express an opinion.)

There is a strong connection between views on whether abortion should be legal and views on the morality of having an abortion. Most opponents of legal abortion (80%) say having an abortion is morally wrong. Most supporters of legal abortion, on the other hand, say abortion is morally acceptable (18%) or that it is not a moral issue (42%). But more than a quarter of those who say abortion should be legal (28%) say it is morally wrong to have an abortion.

Consistent with this, the most pro-life groups more often say that abortion is morally wrong. Three-quarters of conservative Republicans say this, as do slight majorities of moderate or liberal Republicans (51%) and conservative or moderate Democrats (55%). Nearly a third of liberal Democrats (31%) say abortion is morally wrong, with 40% saying it is not a moral issue.

White evangelical Protestants are very likely to say abortion is morally wrong (74%). Majorities of black Protestants (58%) and Catholics (58%) also say this. Fewer than half of white mainline Protestants (40%) say that abortion is morally wrong. Among the unaffiliated, 30% say having an abortion is morally wrong, but 43% say it is not a moral issue. Attendance at worship services also plays a role, with those who attend most frequently being twice as likely as those who attend least often to say abortion is morally wrong (67% vs. 35%).

Influence of Religious and Moral Beliefs

Religious beliefs, when cited as the main source of thinking on abortion, are much more likely to influence adherents in a pro-life direction than in a pro-choice direction. Among those who say their religious beliefs have the most influence on their thinking about abortion, an overwhelming majority (82%) say abortion should be illegal. Less than one-in-five (18%) say it should be legal.

Religious and Moral Beliefs Linked with Abortion Views

The opposite is true, however, among those who cite education or personal experience as their main influence. Strong majorities of these groups identify with a pro-choice viewpoint (72% among those saying education, 70% among those saying personal experience).

A similar though less-pronounced pattern is seen on the question of whether the country should find a middle ground on abortion. Those who cite religious beliefs as the primary influence on their abortion views and those who say abortion is morally wrong are considerably more likely than others to say that there is no room for compromise on the issue of abortion.

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Photo credit: Corbis


Cite this publication: Joseph Liu. “Support for Abortion Slips.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (October 1, 2009) http://www.pewforum.org/2009/10/01/support-for-abortion-slips/, accessed on July 22, 2014.