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What Americans Really Think About Abortion

protesters for and against abortion
Protesters for and against abortion often focus on the Supreme Court. (Image credit: Left: <a href="">Ryan Rodrick Beiler</a> | <a href="">Shutterstock</a>; Right: <a href="">Benjamin F. Haith</a> | )

Rep. Todd Akin's statements about abortion shed light on the Missouri Republican's view that abortion should be illegal in all cases, including rape or incest. However, it's a position that few in the American public are willing to take.

According to polling data, Americans are split fairly evenly on whether or not they think abortion should be legal, but the opinions hover in a much more gray area than is usually seen in politicians' chatter.

In an interview last November, political scientist Morris Fiorina, a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, explained the public's abortion views.

"Most Americans are troubled," Fiorina told LiveScience. "They think there are too many abortions, but they don't want to make it illegal."

A 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 46 percent of people say abortion should be legal in all or most cases; on the other side, 44 percent say abortion should always or mostly be illegal.

Even among those who'd like to see abortion restrictions tightened, a minority believe, like Akin, that the procedure should be illegal without exception. According to the same Pew poll, only 18 percent of Americans held that viewpoint. The numbers were unchanged from the previous year's survey, Pew reported.

Other polls find similar results. A May 2012 Gallup poll with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent found that 77 percent of Americans thought abortion should be always legal or sometimes legal. Twenty percent said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. Notably, this 20 percent was much smaller than the number of people who declared themselves "pro-life" (50 percent), suggesting that people who identify with that label do not always reject abortion in every circumstance. [10 Odd Facts About the Female Body]

Attempts to restrict abortion access have become more frequent in recent years. In 2011, states enacted a record 135 reproductive health and rights provisions, 68 percent of which restricted abortion access, according to the reproductive health organization the Guttmacher Institute. In the first three months of 2012 alone, legislators around the country introduced 944 reproductive health-related bills, half of which were designed to restrict abortion access (many of these bills will likely fail to pass as happens with many bills.)

Nevertheless, public opinion about abortion has remained stable since the 1970s. For example, a long-running survey by American National Election Studies found that 11 percent of people said abortion should always be illegal in 1972. As of 2008, that number had budged only 4 points, to 15 percent.

Even so, abortion battles are unlikely to go away, Fiorina told LiveScience.

"As long as there are really vocal minorities out there that regard [abortion] as the most important issue in our lifetime, and some of them do, there will be attempts to get it on the agenda," he said.

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Stephanie Pappas

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science covering topics from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. A freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, she also regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.