What do Americans know about abortion access and safety?

Taylor OrthSenior Survey Data Journalist
April 14, 2022, 3:37 PM GMT+0

The American reproductive landscape changed dramatically over the past year as several states, including Texas, Kentucky, Idaho, and Oklahoma, have passed laws restricting and in some cases criminalizing forms of abortion care. In the latest Economist/YouGov Poll, we asked Americans their opinions on abortion access, looking specifically at opinions on women receiving medication to end their pregnancy (also known as medication abortion or “the abortion pill”) via telehealth and mail. Americans are more unfamiliar with medication abortion and its safety than they are with surgical abortion, but generally are more likely to support than oppose several ways to make abortion more accessible.

Perceptions about access to abortion differ across regions of the U.S. People in the South (36%), especially those in Texas (54%), are more likely than Americans overall (24%) to say it would be difficult to access abortion care services near where they live. Americans living in the Northeast (12%) and West (20%), including New York (17%), and California (17%), are less likely to say it is difficult to access an abortion in their area. (All states mentioned include at least 100 respondents.)

Most Americans (67%) say a woman should be allowed to have an abortion if her doctor agrees to it, while 33% say she should not be allowed even if her doctor agrees. A significant share of people who support abortion restrictions in other contexts agree that the decision should be between a woman and her doctor. Even 40% of people who say that abortion should only be legal in special circumstances, like if the woman’s life is in danger, agree that a woman should be allowed to get an abortion if her doctor agrees. 

As restrictions around abortion have tightened in many states, medication abortion has become more common, and now accounts for more than half of all abortions in the U.S. Abortion medication can be taken within the first trimester of pregnancy. It was approved by the FDA in 2000, and while studies show it’s safer than Tylenol, it remains highly regulated and relatively unknown; only 17% of women in our survey say they’ve heard a lot about it, including 23% of adult women under 45. 

Americans’ relative lack of familiarity with the abortion pill also means they lack information about its safety. To differentiate medication abortion from emergency contraception (which it is often confused with), we asked two questions about safety, one about each drug. We indicated in both an earlier question and in the question about the safety of medication abortion, that it and emergency contraception were different things. About the same share of Americans say that medication abortion is unsafe (19%) as say that surgical abortion (19%) and emergency contraception (14%) are unsafe. But Americans are less likely to say medication abortion is safe (36%) relative to surgical abortion (61%) and emergency contraception (51%). Instead, they are significantly more likely to say they’re “not sure” about the safety of medication abortion (46%) relative to the other two options (34% for emergency contraception and 21% for surgical abortion). 

Most Americans aren’t aware that medication abortion is now the most common method of ending a pregnancy. When asked how abortions are most often performed in the U.S., Americans most often say surgical abortion (38%), followed by “not sure” (28%), about the same (20%), and, finally, medication abortion (14%). 

Americans are divided on four recent debates around abortion:

— Linley Sanders and Carl Bialik contributed to this article

This poll was conducted on April 9 - 12, 2022, among 1,500 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this Economist/YouGov poll

Image: Getty