To see how Utahns’ views on abortion have evolved, let’s look at the polling data

Positions have changed, but a lot still hinges on how the questions are posed.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of protesters march in the streets after a rally at the Capitol for a "Fight fo the Right to Choose" rally on Thursday, May 5, 2022.

How have Utahns’ opinions on abortion changed over time?

Obviously, this curiosity was spurred by the leak of the Supreme Court’s majority opinion overturning the precedent set in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. That decision, which was then supported by a 7-2 court vote, looks likely to be overruled in a split decision by a more conservative court in the coming months.

So if the high court’s views on abortion have changed, how much have the people’s? There’s a lot of documentation from ages of polling. For starters, check out Gallup’s long history of surveying on the issue. There are literally thousands of nationwide public opinion polls that have taken place over the years, all within reach of Google.

But I wanted to go closer to home, and find out what Utahns have thought about abortion through the years. That’s a much harder question to answer — or at least, it was. Thanks to Utah Digital Newspapers, a collaborative effort based out of the Marriott Library at the University of Utah, anyone can now search The Salt Lake Tribune’s archives for free. The archives go from the paper’s founding in 1871 to 2004.

It’s such a useful resource in general but especially for undertakings like this one. Projects that would have taken weeks or months of microfiche searching now can be done from my computer at home. So while a regular Google search wasn’t super useful, the archive allowed me to find 14 polls done on the issue just on Utahns alone, from 1970 to 2020.

Similar questions, different results

One aspect of polling I was surprised by was how you could get wildly different results, just based on what questions you asked. For example, in 1996, a Tribune poll conducted by Valley Research asked people two abortion-related questions:

• Do you support a constitutional amendment to ban most abortions?

• In general, who or what should have the final say on whether or not a woman has an abortion?

In this poll, 49% of Utahns said that they supported an amendment banning most abortions, with 41% against. However, when those same Utahns were asked who should have the final say on abortions, 69% said the woman. Only 3% said the government (9% said the doctor, 10% said other, 1% said religion, and 8% were unsure).

That, uh, does not compute. If the government banned most abortions, the woman would not usually get the final say on whether she has one.

It turns out that this happens all the time. It happened in 1970, and it happens now. Vox recently did a poll that found 34% of respondents said abortions should be legal “only in cases of rape, abuse, or if the woman’s health is at risk.” And then it asked those specific 34% of people this question: “In 1973, the Roe v. Wade decision established a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion. Would you like to see the Supreme Court overturn its Roe v. Wade decision, or not?”

A majority, 53%, of just those people who wanted only legal abortions in those three specific cases said they wanted to keep Roe v. Wade, which allows legal abortions in innumerably more cases.

People frequently do not make sense.

Early polling results

So, let me take you back to a pre-Roe era. The year is 1970. My Tribune grandfathers have asked research firm Bardsley and Haslachler to poll residents of Salt Lake and Davis counties on abortion. They’re asked: “If you had the chance, would you vote for or against making abortion legal in Utah?”

More than a third (37%) said for, 54% said against, and 9% were undecided. The Tribune, ever thoughtful, also split up the respondents by their religious affiliation. Nearly a third (32%) of Latter-day Saints favored legalized abortion, and 61% were against. Meanwhile, 50% of non-LDS residents supported legalized abortion, while 37% didn’t.

That’s the only Utah-specific poll I could find that took place before the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. Before that, few articles discuss abortion as a primary topic in Utah newspapers. It’s interesting how reluctant the state’s politicians were to comment on the matter in either direction — whether it was because it was considered a taboo topic, or because they didn’t know where they stood on the matter, there were a lot of wishy-washy nonresponses from the elected leaders of the day.

You’ll notice that poll also looked at only two of Utah’s counties, ignoring many other rural and suburban districts. Researchers from the University of Michigan used demographic data to estimate that Utah’s proportion of residents who would support “a law which would permit a woman to go to a doctor to end pregnancy at any time during the first three months” rested at 30% in 1969, a number they estimated increased to 39% by 1972.

Polling explodes in time of controversy

There’s reason to believe that support for legal abortions continued to expand for the next decade in Utah. While it’s fair to question whether the source of this survey may have led to results pushed in one direction, a Planned Parenthood poll in 1982 asked Utahns if they would “favor a state law banning abortion.” More than half (54%) said they would oppose such a ban, while 40% supported one. It’s a trend backed by movement in that direction nationally as well.

By decade’s end, Utah would become the home of one of America’s abortion firestorms. In 1990, voters, after submitting their ballots in the November election, were asked whether “Utah should be a leading state in overturning Roe v. Wade?” by the Utah Colleges Exit Poll. Some 22% of voters said yes, 57% said no, and 21% didn’t know.

You all know how the Utah Legislature operates: Lawmakers ignored the will of the voters two months later.

Yes, in 1991, they passed the toughest abortion law in the nation, one that was signed specifically to challenge the Roe v. Wade ruling. It sought to permit abortions only in cases of rape, incest, when the pregnancy could lead to “grave damage to the pregnant woman’s medical health” or when the child might be born with “grave defects.” Courts shot down the law in subsequent years, at taxpayer expense.

This led to a slate of public opinion polls from Utahns on the matter. In 1991, a Tribune poll conducted by Insight Research asked Utahns, “Should a woman have the right to choose if she has an abortion?” Results: 31% said no, 57% said yes, and 12% were unsure.

A 1992 poll jointly commissioned by The Tribune and KUTV found that 29% of Utahns supported elective abortions, while 34% said they opposed them, but believed that the government should not prohibit them. A remaining 30% said they supported laws prohibiting abortions.

Recent results on abortion polling

Four polls in the past decade have produced differing responses: Two said a majority of Utahns supported abortion rights, while two said a majority felt abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.

A 2014 Pew Research Center poll of Utahns eschewed asking a question altogether, just leaving respondents to choose if “abortion should be legal in all or most cases,” or “abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.” Some 47% chose the former; 51% chose the latter.

In 2018, a Utah Policy poll asked a similar nonquestion: “Which of the following best describes your feelings toward abortion?” Pollsters broke their choices into four categories: 11% said it should be legal in all cases, 28% said legal in most cases, 52% said illegal in most cases, and 8% said illegal in all cases.

A Utah Policy poll in September 2019 later asked Utahns specifically about Roe v. Wade. In that survey, 35% wanted to keep Roe v. Wade as is. In addition, 11% wanted to keep Roe and reduce other restrictions, and 12% said they wanted Roe’s edict to expand to include abortion under any circumstances. On the other hand, 21% wanted it overturned, another 21% wanted the decision overturned while adding more restrictions to abortions.

A 2020 poll conducted for Planned Parenthood, Alliance for a Better Utah and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah found that 52% of Utahns said they would uphold Roe v. Wade. Again, we have to be fair: This is a poll commissioned by groups interested in promoting abortion rights.

But that poll also had an interesting wrinkle. At the poll’s outset, 35% of respondents said they would prefer Utah’s abortion laws be less strict, 35% said they’d leave them as is, and 30% favored stricter laws. But after telling respondents about the Utah laws currently in place, like the 72-hour waiting period and counseling, only 16% still wanted stricter laws.

And that points toward perhaps the biggest lesson I took from this research: just how complicated this issue is in the hearts of Utahns.

If you poll about “who should choose” in cases of abortion, or ask if the government should interfere in abortions, or ask if Roe v. Wade should be upheld, you’ll get a majority of Utahns supporting abortion rights. Every poll of Utah that I could find that asked those questions since 1982 has supported an abortion-rights stance. On the other hand, if you ask whether abortion should be mostly legal or illegal, you get stances split around 50/50, with perhaps a slight edge toward anti-abortion stances.

There is a vast middle — 80% of Utahns, if the 2018 Utah Policy poll is to be believed — who believe that abortion should be legal in some cases but not others. A significant percentage have such malleable views that their stance depends on how the question is formed.

If Utah legislators want to represent their constituents, then they should take the nuances of the subject into account rather than taking a hard-line position.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@ sltrib.com.

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