Americans Confused About Abortion

The seminal Supreme Court ruling on abortion, known as Roe v. Wade, was handed down in 1973. One might expect Americans to have developed clear and consistent views on abortion during the intervening 45 years, but new research from the American Culture & Faith Institute (ACFI) suggests the opposite. The fact that more than 54 million abortions have been performed in the country since that ruling has done little to spur people on to develop a clear and compelling view on the matter.

Appearing at the Capitol to present his latest national research on abortion, George Barna, the Executive Director of ACFI, told legislators and other activists gathered that the best summary of Americans’ views on abortion may be “confused and lukewarm.” He went on to describe highlights from the ACFI study on abortion attitudes and policy prescriptions, as outlined below.


On balance, a plurality of adults (47%) claim to be pro-choice. That was substantially larger than the 38% who claimed to be pro-life. Another 8% said they held neither position, and the remaining 8% were not sure.

However, when the intensity of one’s position is taken into account, the difference between the two sides is reduced. Overall, 31% said they were strongly pro-choice compared to 24% who said they were strongly pro-life.

Legalizing Abortion

A small majority of adults (56%) want abortion to be legal. However, that view is dependent upon the circumstances.

Less than one-quarter of all adults (23%) want abortion to be legal under any and all circumstances. One-third (33%) want abortion to be legal under most but not all circumstances. Another one-quarter (24%) want the practice to be illegal under most circumstances. Only one out of ten adults (10%) wants to outlaw abortion in all situations. The remaining 11% were not sure.


The largest share of adults, but a distinct minority, believes that abortion is immoral (36%). Close to one-fourth of the public (23% says abortion is a moral act, while a similar proportion (24%) says that abortion is not a moral issue. The remaining 16% do not know.

Inconsistent Views

A large majority of the public holds internally inconsistent views on abortion. For instance, considering just three related issues – the legality of abortion, the morality of abortion, and the age at which the fetus becomes human – more than three out of four adults have views that do not match. One out of seven adults (14%) emerged as consistently pro-abortion while only 8% were consistently pro-life.

Examples of those inconsistencies were abundant. For instance, a majority of those who say they are pro-life also say that even though they would not have an abortion they think everyone should have the right to choose. One-quarter of the self-proclaimed pro-lifers believe abortions should be allowed if the fetus is less than one month old. Almost one in four pro-lifers (23%) contends that abortions should be legal in all or most circumstances. Nearly nine out of ten adults who say they are pro-choice (86%) also contend that all human life is sacred. One-fourth of the self-described pro-choice segment (25%) admits that abortion is murder, regardless of the age or health of the fetus. More than one out of five pro-abortion advocates (22%) claim that the fetus is human at conception. In fact, one-sixth of the pro-abortion segment (16%) believes that abortion is morally unacceptable.

Further evidence of peoples’ contradictory views include the fact that one-third of all adults (33%) believe that abortion is murder and yet they believe it should be legal. Three out of ten adults (29%) argue that life starts at conception and yet they support the legalization of abortion.

Value of Life

When adults were asked what, if anything, makes human life valuable, numerous answers were provided. The most common view – held by less than two out of every five adults (38%) – was the fact that people are made in the image of God or that life is a gift from God. Half as many people (17%) said that life is of value by the mere fact that we exist, while the same proportion attributed the value of life to our potential to become something greater or more productive. Another one-seventh of adults (14%) said the value of life comes from what we are able to accomplish. A smaller proportion of the public said life matters and is valued because humans can identify a purpose for living (4%). Only 2% said life does not have value but 8% said they are not sure how to identify whether and why life has value.

The survey also discovered that more than four out of five adults (86%) believe all lives are of equal value; just 10% believe that some lives are more valuable than others. Slightly higher proportions of born again Christians (93%) and pro-life adults (92%) held that all lives are of equal value.

Circumstances for Legalization

It was evident that most Americans view the legalization of abortion as conditional. For instance, three-quarters of adults (73%) stated that they would legalize abortion in cases where the pregnancy was due to rape. The same percentage said they felt abortion should be permitted if the mother was likely to die by giving birth to the child.

Legalization was advocated by a plurality under various circumstances. These included testing of the unborn child showing that he/she would be mentally disabled (49% supported legalization); if the mother was under 18 but the parents of the birth-mother gave their permission (48%); if the birth mother was under 18 years of age (48%); and when testing showed that the unborn child would be physically disabled (44%).

There were also certain situations in which a plurality was opposed to legalizing abortion. Those conditions included when the birth mother lacked the financial means to provide for the child (45% opposed legalizing abortion for that reason); when the birth of the child would cause an economic hardship for the mother (45%); when the birth of the child would cause an emotional hardship for the mother (45%); or when the birth-father did not consent to the abortion (44%).

Fetus Becoming Human

Most Americans do not believe that a fertilized egg becomes human upon conception. The view that a fetus is human upon conception is held by 42% of adults. When does it become human, according to the rest of the country? Sometime during the first month (10%), during the first trimester (9%), during the second trimester (6%), during the third trimester (4%), when the fetus is capable of independence/living outside the womb (9%), or when the baby is delivered from the womb (7%). The remaining 13% had no idea.

Abortion and the Age of the Fetus

Most Americans (54%) support abortion if the fetus is less than one month old. However, a plurality (45%) opposes abortion if the child is in its first trimester. A solid majority (63%) opposes abortion if the child is in the second trimester. Nearly three-fourths of adults (72%) oppose abortions during the final trimester.

Government Regulation

While the pro-life forces have been pushing for states’ rights on Abortion policy, the general public holds a different view. Six out of ten adults say the government should not be involved in the regulation of abortion. The three out of ten adults who want the government to regulate abortion generally contend that it should be the federal government (64%) rather than individual states (26%) that are in charge of making and enforcing those policies.

Public Schools

Respondents were asked what they believed public schools should teach teenaged students about abortion. Overall, a plurality (49%) said the public schools should not teach that abortion is a viable alternative to an unwanted pregnancy, while one-third (34%) supported doing so and 16% were uncertain.

As for teaching that adoption is a viable option to an unwanted pregnancy, a two-thirds majority (66%) favored teaching that view, while just one out of five (21%) opposed doing so and the remaining 13% did not have an opinion.

Posed with the possibility of public schools teaching that sexual abstinence is a viable means of avoiding an unwanted pregnancy, a three-quarters majority (77%) favored such teaching while only one out of eight adults (13%) opposed doing so and 10% did not know.

Funding Planned Parenthood

The survey revealed that half of adults want Planned Parenthood to continue to receive either the same amount of funding it currently receives (27%) or increased funds (23%). One-third of Americans want to see the organization’s $500-million-plus annual federal funding either decrease (15%) or be curtailed altogether (19%). Another one-sixth of the public (16%) does not know what to think on this matter.

Other Opinions about Abortion

The survey posed a series of statements to respondents related to abortion. The opinions expressed in response to those statements further indicated where Americans stand on this issue.

“All human life is sacred.” Nearly two-thirds of adults strongly agreed with the statement while only 3% strongly disagreed. Born again Christians were significantly more likely than non-born again people to strongly agree (77% vs. 56%). Similarly, self-identified pro-lifers were more likely than self-identified pro-choicers to strongly agree (72% vs. 58%).

“American society does not sufficiently value every human life.” Although a minority of people held a strong opinion on this matter, those who did strongly agree by more than a 4-to-1 margin over those who strongly disagreed (36% vs. 8%). There were minimal distinctions, though in the opinion splits between born again and non-born again, and pro-life and pro-choice adults.

“Every person has the ability to add significant value to the world.” An overwhelming 58% of Americans strongly affirmed this statement while just 2% strongly rejected it. Born again adults (66%) were more likely than non-born again people (55%) to strongly agree with this sentiment.

“The U.S. Constitution recognizes the value of every human life.” Perhaps unexpectedly, only a bit more than one-third of adults (37%) strongly agrees with this idea although just 8% strongly disagree. This suggests that most people do not know. Not surprisingly, though, we found that born again people were more likely than non-born again people to strongly affirm the statement (43% – 35%) and pro-lifers were more likely than pro-choicers to strongly affirm it (47% – 33%).

“People in most other countries value human life more than most people in the United States do.” Fewer than four out of ten Americans held a strong opinion on this matter. Overall, just 15% strongly agreed while 2% strongly disagreed.

“If it weren’t for the teachings of the Bible, Americans would probably value human life less than they do.” Again, a minority of adults held a strong opinion on this idea. Those who did were more likely to strongly agree with it, by roughly a 2-to-1 margin (28% strongly agreed, 16% strongly disagreed). As anticipated, born again Christians had a much more positive view of this statement than did non-born again people (42% versus 23% strong agreement, respectively). Pro-life individuals were also much more likely than pro-choice adults to strongly agree (37% vs. 23%).

“Those who wish to should be allowed to participate in legal, non-violent protests against abortion providers.” Although there have been many instances and other attempts in recent years to curtail people’s right to expression when it conflicted with liberal ideas, most citizens still strongly affirm the right to peaceful protest against abortion. Overall, about four out of ten adults strongly affirmed this right (41%) while just 7% strongly rejected it (7%). Naturally, born again adults were more likely than the non-born agains to strongly affirm this right (49% vs. 38%) and pro-life advocates were more likely than pro-choice advocates to do so (52% vs. 36%). However, it is also worth noting that less than half of Americans have a strong opinion on this matter.

The survey also revealed that most Americans favor a three-day waiting period from the time a woman first tells her doctor that she wants an abortion to the time that it is made available to her. Six out of ten people (59%) supported such a cooling off period, while 20% opposed such a regulation and another 21% were uncertain.

The idea of notifying parents that their minor child (i.e., under the age of 18) is seeking an abortion before it can be performed was supported by more than three-quarters of all adults (77%). Only one out of five people (19%) opposed such notification and the remaining 15% said they were not sure.

Faith Differences

When born again and non-born again adults are compared on a dozen of the key positions, there are very substantial differences evident in the positions taken by each group.

Born again individuals are about three times as likely to describe themselves as pro-life and to believe that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances.

Born again adults are twice as likely to opt for government regulation of abortion; describe abortion as morally unacceptable; believe abortion should be illegal if the fetus is less than a month old, or in its first trimester; to contend the fetus becomes human at conception; to characterize abortion as murder, regardless of the circumstances; and to want to end all government funding of Planned Parenthood.

Non-born again adults are twice as likely to say public schools should teach teens that abortion is a viable way to end an unwanted pregnancy.

Generation Gap

While there is ample evidence that Millennials and Baby Boomers have radically different lifestyles and views of the world, the ACFI survey also showed that the two generations have surprisingly similar views about abortion.

Millennials are much more likely to approve of abortions regardless of the age of the fetus; they view the decision as a woman’s choice more than a matter in which the fetus has any rights. The younger group is less likely to view the fetus a human upon conception, is much less prone to halting funding for Planned Parenthood, and is less likely to describe themselves as strongly pro-life.

Unexpectedly, the two segments have similar views about moral acceptability; government regulation; circumstances when abortion should be illegal; whether abortion constitutes murder; what public schools should teach about an unwanted pregnancy.

Explaining the Confusion

George Barna, who designed and analyzed the research for ACFI, explained that American views on abortion have become so convoluted due to significant changes in peoples’ faith and their exposure to media-driven perspectives.

He noted that there has been a broad and consistent decline in Christian commitment. As evidence of that reduction he cited substantial drops in the percentage of the public that attends church, reads the Bible, has accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, or possess a biblical worldview.

The researcher also pointed out that there has been a substantial rise in narcissism and a widespread embrace of postmodernism. The two youngest generations of Americans, in particular, have adopted postmodern thinking, which dismisses the notion of moral truth and advances the importance of personal choice, convenience, and comfort, as well as individual happiness.

Barna also referenced to a national study ACFI conducted that found most of the theologically conservative churches in the U.S. refused to teach people how to think biblically about controversial issues. Among the issues of interest to Christians but which pastors have steadfastly refused to teach or preach about are religious persecution, sexual identity, Israel, poverty, and cultural restoration.

Various studies by Barna have shown the extensive influence of media on Americans. Given the widespread support for abortion that is found in both news and entertainment media in the U.S., fighting for a pro-life position is a constant and uphill battle.

In addition, Barna described some of the obstacles he has observed toward increasing opposition to legalized abortion and support for life.

“Increasing numbers of Americans are separating their religious beliefs from moral choices,” the California-based researcher and author explained, “even claiming that practices such as abortion are not a moral decision.”

Barna further suggested that many Americans have disengaged from the issue of abortion. “Let’s face it,” he commented, “this issue has been a major bone of contention for decades. Millions of Americans have a lukewarm position because they do not really understand what is involved and what is at stake. Our studies have typically found that people are confused about abortion, suffer from issue fatigue, want to avoid the conflict that goes with taking a position, and make their choices based on emotion rather than logic or faith. That’s a recipe for convoluted reasoning and indefensible positions.”

About the Research

The research described in this report is drawn from FullView™, a nationwide survey with a randomly-selected sample size of 1,100 adults, age 18 or older, whose demographic profile reflects that of the adult population. The online study was conducted by the American Culture & Faith Institute during June of 2017.

The American Culture & Faith Institute is a division of United in Purpose, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. The mission of United in Purpose is to educate, motivate and activate conservative Christians to engage in cultural transformation in ways that are consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The organization does not support or promote individual political candidates or parties.

Additional information about this study and related research is accessible on the American Culture & Faith Institute website, located at To receive a free copy of the monthly research reports produced by ACFI, visit the website and register for the American Culture Review newsletter.