WASHINGTON — With Roe v. Wade facing its strongest threat in decades, a new poll finds Democrats increasingly view protecting abortion rights as a high priority for the government.
Thirteen percent of Democrats mentioned abortion or reproductive rights as one of the issues they want the federal government to address in 2022, according to a December poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. That's up from less than 1% of Democrats who named it as a priority for 2021 and 3% who listed it in 2020.
Some other issues like the economy, COVID-19, health care and gun control ranked as higher priorities for Democrats in the poll, which allowed respondents to name up to five top issues. But the exponential rise in the percentage citing reproductive rights as a key concern suggests the issue is resonating with Democrats as the Supreme Court considers cases that could lead to dramatic restrictions on abortion access.
"The public have lots of things that they want to see government addressing," said Jennifer Benz, deputy director of The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. "You ask this kind of question in a time of economic turmoil and in the time of a pandemic and all of these other things going on, we might not expect abortion to rise to the top."
With a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, Republicans see this as their best chance in years to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion throughout the United States. In December, the Supreme Court left in place a Texas law that bans most abortions in the state and signaled during arguments that they would uphold a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. That decision will be made public in June.
Calling the abortion polling numbers "stark," Benz noted that conventional wisdom holds that abortion is a motivating issue for Republicans and not for Democrats. Research from the 1980s and 1990s, Benz said, "regularly found that opponents of abortion had greater strength of attitudes and considered the issue important to them personally more than pro-choice people."
That may be changing. Sam Lau, senior director for advocacy media at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, believes more Americans are recognizing this moment as a crisis for abortion access.
"I think what we have seen is absolutely an increase in awareness, an increase in urgency, an increase in the need to fight back," he said. "But I still actually think that huge swaths of this population still don't quite believe that the access to abortion and the 50-year precedent that is Roe v. Wade is really hanging in the balance."
The court's 1973 decision, reaffirmed in the 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, allows states to regulate but not ban abortion up to the point of fetal viability, at roughly 24 weeks. If Roe and Casey are overturned in June, abortion would soon become illegal or severely restricted in roughly half the states, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights.
That's just months ahead of midterm elections that are expected to be challenging for Democrats.
Lau thinks people are starting to recognize they "simply cannot rely on the courts to protect our rights and our access to essential health care."
"We are currently pushing for elected officials who are champions of sexual and reproductive health care to be bold and to go on offense and to pass proactive legislation to protect access to abortion," Lau said. "I think voters are going to go to the polls and want to vote for candidates who they can trust to protect their health care and their reproductive freedom."
Polling shows relatively few Americans want to see Roe overturned. In 2020, AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate, showed 69% of voters in the presidential election said the Supreme Court should leave the Roe v. Wade decision as is; just 29% said the court should overturn the decision. In general, AP-NORC polling shows a majority of the public favors abortion being legal in most or all cases.
Still, Americans have nuanced attitudes on the issue, and many don't think that abortion should be possible after the first trimester or that women should be able to obtain a legal abortion for any reason.
For 41-year-old Rachelle Dunn, who knew girls in high school and women in college and her adult life who have needed abortions, it's "just health care."
"It's something that women I have known through my life have needed for different reasons," said Dunn, of Tarentum, Pa. "The government needs to step in because all of these laws are being written and passed, but none of them are for medical reasons."
She's concerned about a domino effect from these Supreme Court cases, adding that she worries about how they will affect her two daughters' futures, as well as her son's.
"It just seems like, if it's been affirmed, repeatedly, why are we still doing this?" Dunn said.