How much do Americans know about abortion in the U.S.?

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
May 25, 2022, 12:49 PM GMT+0

A recent YouGov poll tested Americans’ knowledge of 10 facts relating to abortion in the United States. The results reveal that many Americans overestimate how far along into pregnancy most abortions are performed and underestimate the share of abortion patients who have already given birth to other children. More people are able to accurately estimate the percentage of pregnancies that are unplanned, as well as the share of abortions performed on women with incomes below the poverty line.

Below, we present results from 10 questions we asked Americans on abortion in the U.S., alongside the most up-to-date estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the pro-abortion-rights research group Guttmacher Institute, and academic journals. The range in which the estimates provided by these sources fall is indicated in green on each chart.

What percentage of pregnancies are unplanned?

Many people do a reasonable job of estimating the share of all pregnancies in the U.S. that are unintended or unplanned, which the Guttmacher Institute estimates is nearly half (45%). The U.S. is somewhat of an outlier in terms of its unintended pregnancy rate, which is significantly higher than that of other developed countries. In our survey, about one in three Americans said they thought around 40% or 50% of pregnancies are unplanned, meaning the pregnancies were not intended to occur at that time. A roughly equal share of people over- and underestimated the percentage of unplanned pregnancies.

What percentage of unplanned pregnancies end in abortion?

Americans tend to underestimate the share of unplanned pregnancies that end in abortion. According to 2011 data from The Guttmacher Institute, about 42% of the unintended pregnancies that don't end in miscarriages end in abortion in the U.S. In our survey, more than half of Americans who provided a response said that the percentage of unplanned pregnancies ended by abortion is around 30% or less, and the largest share of people guessed it was around 10%. About one-quarter of people provided an overestimate, guessing that the share ending in abortion is around 50% or more.

During which stage of pregnancy is the largest share of abortions performed?

Many Americans believe that most abortions occur later in pregnancy than they actually do. According to the CDC, 43%of abortions occur within the first six weeks of pregnancy, the largest share among the five periods we polled about. Only 21% occur after the first nine weeks. A plurality of Americans, however, believe that most abortions occur between Weeks 10 and 13. Only 12% of people accurately responded that most abortions occur within the first six weeks.

What percentage of abortions involve medication rather than a surgical procedure?

As restrictions around abortion have tightened in many states, medication abortion (using what is known as the abortion pill) has become more common, and is now estimated to account for 54% of all abortions in the U.S. Abortion medication can be taken within the first trimester of pregnancy, and according to a recent survey, remains relatively unknown; only 17% of women polled said they’d heard a lot about it. When asked to provide their best estimate in our latest survey, more Americans underestimated than overestimated the share of abortions caused by medication. The largest share of people estimate that medication abortion accounts for around 10% of all abortions.

Which age group accounts for the largest share of abortions?

A majority of Americans surveyed accurately estimated that most abortion patients are in their 20s. More thought that abortions were concentrated among patients in their early 20s than late 20s, though in reality, people in these two groups make up an equal share of abortions. The CDC estimates that just 9% of people who have abortions are teenagers, and around one-third are over 30. However, far more Americans guessed that teenagers account for the largest share of abortions than said the same about people in their 30s.

What percentage of people who have abortions have already given birth to other children?

While many people may assume that abortion patients are seeking to avoid parenthood, the reality is that most people who have abortions are already parents. According to 2019 data from the CDC, 60% of abortion patients had given birth to one or more children before getting the abortion, and half had given birth to two or more children. However, the vast majority of Americans estimate that the share of abortion patients who have already given birth is below 60%, with the largest share of people estimating that the share who are already parents is around 10% or 20%.

What percentage of people who have abortions are not married or living with a partner?

A little over half of people who have abortions in the U.S. (55%) were neither married nor living with a romantic partner during the month they became pregnant. Half of Americans who responded when asked to provide an estimate, however, assume the share of abortion patients living without a partner is around 40% or lower. Around one-quarter of people correctly estimate the percentage to be around 50% or 60%. Slightly fewer people overestimate the share living without a partner.

What percentage of people who have abortions have incomes below the poverty line?

The Guttmacher Institute estimates that about half of abortion patients (49%) have a family income below the federal poverty level. In our survey, many Americans accurately said that around half of abortion patients are below the poverty line. Roughly similar shares of people over- and underestimated the percentage of abortion patients in poverty. However, it’s important to consider that some people may not have a clear understanding of where the federal poverty line lies, which may in turn affect their sense of the share of people receiving abortions who fall within this range.

During which stage of pregnancy is a fetus considered viable?

The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade established a right to abortion until the point in a pregnancy when a fetus can survive outside the womb when supported by up-to-date medicine. This point, known as the point of fetal viability, has become central to many legislative and judicial battles around abortion restrictions. Because viability is determined by a society’s current biomedical capacities and is considered on a case-to-case basis, there is no uniform gestational age that defines viability across time or place. When Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, viability was thought to occur around 28 weeks. In the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court determined viability to be closer to 23 or 24 weeks. While some babies born during this period can survive, most either die or experience severe medical problems. When asked to estimate the point of viability, the largest share of people who provided responses say that viability is somewhere between 25 and 30 weeks, while slightly fewer say it is between 19 and 24 weeks (which encompasses the range determined in Planned Parenthood v. Case).

During which stage of pregnancy is a fetus capable of feeling pain?

The question of when a fetus is capable of feeling pain remains a subject of debate among both lawmakers and doctors. A synthesis of research on the subject published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005 concluded that “Evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.” In other words, researchers estimate that a fetus is not capable of feeling pain until around 27 to 30 weeks. Most Americans, however, believe that fetuses can experience pain much earlier than this – 80% of people who provided an answer think that a fetus can experience pain before 25 weeks, while only 7% gave the range of 25 to 30 weeks. Compared to other questions asked, a significantly larger share of people (40%) say that they were unsure.

– Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article.

This poll was conducted on May 17 - 20, 2022, among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.