An Overview of Abortion Attitudes in Texas: Four Things to Know

Since the political rise of the pro-life movement in the 1990s, it’s often been suggested that elected Republicans were less seriously committed to banning abortion than their public pronouncements may have conveyed. The rationale behind this logic was purely political: such a change to health, reproductive, and women’s rights would upend normal politics, resulting in a not-wholly, but largely, gendered political revolt against the GOP. But with Texas’ passage of one of, if not the, most restrictive sets of abortion laws in the country, impacting 85% of abortions in the state and sending women to Oklahoma (!), it would appear that this particular theory of a just-below-the-surface political equilibrium on abortion policy is about to face a serious test. 

The reasons for the Texas GOP’s leap forward on abortion restirctions after a decade of chipping away at access are likely many, and worthy of their own piece of analysis (but the partisan sorting of college and non-college educated voters; the change in composition of the supreme court; the recent fending off of Democratic challenges in the state; and the chance to reinforce existing electoral advantages through redistricting in an increasingly competitive state are some possibilities that come to mind), but looking directly ahead to the next set of Texas elections in 2022, the sudden change in the reproductive health landscape begs the question: where do Texas voters stand on abortion? 

Below, we collect some observations to answer this question based on a decade of relevant University of Texas polling.

1. Equal shares of Texas voters identify as pro-life and pro-choice. The UT poll has asked respondents since October 2014 whether they tend to identify as “pro-life”, “pro-choice” or neither. In the most recent polling conducted in August, 2021, 41% of Texas voters identified as pro-life, 42% identified as pro-choice, 14% identified as neither, and 4% said that they didn’t know. Over the 23 surveys that have asked this question between 2014 and today, on average, 43% of Texas voters said they were pro-life, while 40% said that they were pro-choice. So despite the fact that the Texas Legislature passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, it’s not really fair to describe Texas as a “pro-life” state given an electorate that is clearly divided — at least in its description of itself.

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Pro-lifePro-choiceNeitherDon't know
Oct. 201444%39%12%5%
June 201544%37%12%7%
Oct. 201545%35%13%6%
Feb. 201643%40%13%5%
June 201642%40%11%7%
Oct. 201643%40%11%6%
Feb. 201742%41%13%5%
June 201744%43%9%4%
Oct. 201743%42%12%3%
Feb. 201844%41%11%4%
June 201844%39%13%4%
Oct. 201844%39%12%5%
Feb. 201944%41%10%5%
June 201945%39%12%5%
Oct. 201944%40%11%4%
Feb. 202043%43%10%4%
Apr. 202042%41%12%5%
June 202044%40%12%4%
Oct. 202046%38%12%3%
Feb. 202140%41%14%5%
Apr. 202140%43%13%3%
June 202141%43%14%3%
Aug. 202141%42%14%4%
Oct. 202141%41%13%6%
Feb. 202238%42%13%7%
Apr. 202238%44%13%4%

Obviously, there are sharp partisan differences underlying these identifications, with an average of 70% of Republicans identifying as “pro-life” compared to 18% who identify as “pro-choice” over the course of the time series, while among Democrats, 67% identify as “pro-choice” on average, compared to 16% who identify as “pro-life.”

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Pro-lifePro-choiceNeitherDon't know
Oct. 201470%17%11%2%
June 201568%19%10%4%
Oct. 201566%19%12%3%
Feb. 201667%21%10%2%
June 201666%23%8%3%
Oct. 201668%19%11%2%
Feb. 201767%21%10%3%
June 201771%20%7%2%
Oct. 201769%20%10%1%
Feb. 201873%19%5%3%
June 201868%18%12%3%
Oct. 201873%16%9%2%
Feb. 201972%15%9%4%
June 201969%16%11%4%
Oct. 201972%18%9%1%
Feb. 202073%15%9%3%
Apr. 202071%16%10%3%
June 202073%14%10%3%
Oct. 202077%13%9%1%
Feb. 202166%18%13%3%
Apr. 202172%17%9%2%
June 202168%20%10%2%
Aug. 202169%19%11%2%
Oct. 202171%15%10%3%
Feb. 202260%22%13%4%
Apr. 202266%23%9%3%

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Pro-lifePro-choiceNeitherDon't know
Oct. 201417%66%11%6%
June 201519%62%10%9%
Oct. 201522%56%14%9%
Feb. 201624%58%13%5%
June 201619%63%10%8%
Oct. 201615%69%7%9%
Feb. 201716%65%13%7%
June 201717%68%9%6%
Oct. 201716%70%12%3%
Feb. 201820%63%12%5%
June 201819%66%10%5%
Oct. 201817%66%10%8%
Feb. 201916%71%9%4%
June 201916%68%10%6%
Oct. 201917%66%11%6%
Feb. 202015%74%8%3%
Apr. 202013%70%12%5%
June 202015%71%8%5%
Oct. 202013%69%13%5%
Feb. 202112%70%12%6%
Apr. 202110%74%12%4%
June 202113%70%13%4%
Aug. 202111%74%11%4%
Oct. 20219%75%11%5%
Feb. 202216%69%8%7%
Apr. 202211%71%15%24%

Among true political independents, on average, 37% identify as “pro-choice” across the 23 data points, while 33% identify as “pro-life.” It is worth noting, however, that the “pro-choice” identification appears to be increasing over the last year among some groups, notably women, Hispanics, and voters under-30 — all relevant voting blocs when considering the increasing competitiveness of Texas elections.

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Pro-lifePro-choiceNeitherDon't know
Oct. 201438%41%8%12%
June 201539%42%8%12%
Oct. 201540%37%13%9%
Feb. 201640%39%15%6%
June 201640%42%10%8%
Oct. 201637%46%9%8%
Feb. 201743%39%9%9%
June 201736%54%5%5%
Oct. 201744%49%5%3%
Feb. 201839%46%9%6%
June 201847%42%8%4%
Oct. 201828%59%8%5%
Feb. 201939%51%7%4%
June 201937%44%12%7%
Oct. 201943%43%8%5%
Feb. 202026%59%8%7%
Apr. 202026%52%10%11%
June 202035%55%6%4%
Oct. 202042%46%6%6%
Feb. 202127%51%15%6%
Apr. 202131%58%8%4%
June 202124%64%10%2%
Aug. 202125%61%11%3%
Oct. 202120%59%9%12%
Feb. 202229%48%15%8%
Apr. 202226%57%9%8%

2. Only a small minority of Texas voters would entirely eliminate access to abortion. This is an important, missed consideration in political debates often driven by advocates claiming to represent a majority of voters in their efforts to end all abortions. Jim Henson and I wrote recently about how the state GOP’s push to toe the line of eliminating access to abortion may test voters’ patience given that as recently as February of 2021, only 13% of Texas voters said that abortion should never be permitted, including only 21% of Republicans, among whom the plurality, 47%, would allow for access to abortion in the case of rape, incest (circumstances that the current 6-week ban makes no exceptions for), or if the life of the mother was endangered by the pregnancy, with another 28% in favor of allowing abortion in cases beyond those three (14%) or in most, if not all, cases (14%). Put another way, 79% of Republican voters said, at the beginning of the regular legislative session, that abortion should be permitted in at least some circumstances.

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categoryTotal
Never permitted13%
Permitted in cases of rape, incest, danger to mother31%
Permitted in cases other than rape, incest, danger to mother12%
Always permitted38%
Don't know6%

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Never permitted2%14%21%
Permitted in cases of rape, incest, danger to mother16%28%47%
Permitted in cases other than rape, incest, danger to mother12%6%14%
Always permitted64%43%14%
Don't know6%10%5%

This is an extremely consistent finding on abortion attitudes in both Texas and nationally. In fact, having asked the same item to assess attitudes towards abortion access 10 times between February 2011 and February 2021, no more than 17% of voters indicated in any of the surveys that abortion should never be permitted. So at least 83% of all Texas voters think that abortion should be permitted in at least some circumstances.

3. Texas voters appear to have become less receptive to the introduction of new abortion laws by the Texas Legislature. In general, abortion attitudes have tended to reflect a Texas electorate that is generally open to enacting limitations on the practice of abortion, but, as described above, is significantly less open to revoking access entirely. 

UT polling has tested public support for multiple instances of public policy proposed by the Texas Legislature over the past decade that would place limitations on the practice of abortion, regularly finding support among a plurality or majority of Texas voters. While the list of polling results isn’t a comprehensive accounting of every policy that the legislature has considered over the last decade, it does provide a pretty good summary of some of the ways in which the Legislature has sought to restrict the practice of abortion during that time frame and the public reaction to those proposals. 

These survey items included assessments of:

  • requiring transvaginal ultrasounds in 2011;
  • a 20-week ban on abortion in 2013; 
  • limiting the judicial bypass that would allow minors to receive an abortion without notifying their parents in 2015; 
  • a fetal burial/cremation requirement in 2017; 
  • a 6-week ban in 2019; 
  • and in 2021, a 6-week ban, allowing any individual in Texas the right to sue an abortion provider, and a ban on abortion should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade.
Overall Support/Opposition to Texas Abortion Laws
(University of Texas / Texas Tribune Polling)
Poll Policy Strongly support Somewhat support Somewhat  oppose Strogly oppose Don't know TOTAL SUPPORT TOTAL OPPOSE NET SUPPORT
February 2011 Sonogram Bill 38% 16% 11% 25% 10% 54% 36% +18
May 2011 Sonogram Bill 36% 14% 10% 29% 11% 50% 39% +11
February 2013 Fetal Pain/20-Week Ban 42% 15% 8% 18% 16% 57% 26% +31
June 2105 Judicial Bypass for Minors 30% 20% 14% 22% 14% 50% 36% +14
June 2017 Fetal Burial/Cremation 25% 19% 10% 29% 17% 44% 39% +5
June 2019 6-Week Ban 35% 13% 10% 32% 10% 48% 42% +6
April 2021 6-Week Ban 34% 15% 10% 31% 10% 49% 41% +8
April 2021 Abortion law violation bounties 30% 14% 8% 29% 19% 44% 37% +7
April 2021 Ban Abortion if Roe v. Wade overturned 22% 12% 12% 42% 12% 34% 54% -20
June 2021 6-Week Ban 32% 12% 9% 37% 10% 44% 46% -2
June 2021 Ban Abortion if Roe v. Wade overturned 25% 12% 10% 43% 10% 37% 53% -16
  AVERAGE: 32% 15% 10% 31% 13% 46% 41% +6

What’s most notable about these proposals when considered both in comparison to each other and overtime is the extent to which their popularity has declined as the policies have become increasingly extreme — here defined as the increased likelihood that a law would lead to the prohibition of abortion as opposed to merely limiting access.

Majorities or near-majorities of Texas voters expressed approval for the sonogram requirement in 2011 (54% in February and 50% in May), with only 36% and 39% of Texas voters expressing opposition, producing a measurement of net support of +18 in February and +11 in May. Likewise, in February 2013, the 20-week ban (that now feels generous) registered 57% support and 26% opposition, resulting in net support of +31. Limiting the ability of a judge to bypass parental consent requirements was also broadly popular as of 2015, with 50% in support and 36% in opposition, resulting in net support of +14.

Then in 2017, the Legislature took things to another level, first with an emotional and lengthy debate about a proposed burial or cremation requirement for aborted fetuses — seemingly at the expense of the mother, or some “good” samaritan. This policy appears to have been a step too far for some, as less than a majority expressed support, 44%, with 39% in opposition, resulting in +5 net support — significantly less than the earlier proposals described above. The legislature first seriously considered a 6-week ban in 2019, and when polled, 48% expressed support, 42% expressed opposition (net +6).

In April of this year, voters were again asked about a 6-week ban along with “allowing any individual in Texas the right to sue an abortion provider they believe has violated state law” — a description which is less extreme than the law that ultimately passed — and “automatically banning all abortions in Texas if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade." The 6-week ban received equally ambivalent results in the survey as when asked in 2019, with 49% of voters supportive and 41% opposed (net +8), while allowing anyone to sue an abortion provider received similarly tepid support (44% support; 37% oppose; net +7).

However, a total ban on abortion saw a majority of Texas voters, 54%, in opposition and only 34% in support (net -20).* Asked again in June about the 6-week ban, presumably after learning that a six week ban, based on biology, would in fact act as a near total ban, 44% of voters expressed support for the law, 46% expressed opposition (net -2). A total ban on abortion remained unpopular, opposed by 53% of voters, supported by 37% (net -16).

It’s notable that this pattern of less enthusiastic or even declining net support was evident among most groupings of voters, and among most of the groups that we think of as consequential to elections in the state of Texas. Partisanship is obviously evident in the data, but still follows this pattern. Net opposition among Democrats (the share opposed minus the share who support the provisions) for the sonogram bill increased from 23-points to 42-points between February and May of 2011, however, the most recent 6 week ban is supported by only 15% of Democrats, with 77% in opposition (net -62).

Independents were, in general, supportive of the restrictions tested early in the time series, but that support appears to have flipped around the time of the fetal burial/cremation discussion, with 42% in support and 45% in opposition. The 6-week ban is currently opposed by 46% of independents and supported by 34% (net -12).

Also evident is a clear decline in the net support for the tested policies among different racial/ethnic groups.

Support/Opposition to Texas Abortion Laws by Race/Ethnicity
(University of Texas / Texas Tribune Polling)
    White Black Hispanic
Poll Policy TOTAL SUPPORT TOTAL OPPOSE NET SUPPORT TOTAL SUPPORT TOTAL OPPOSE NET SUPPORT TOTAL SUPPORT TOTAL OPPOSE NET SUPPORT
February 2011 Sonogram Bill 57% 33% +24 34% 49% -15 56% 33% +23
May 2011 Sonogram Bill 52% 38% +14 27% 54% -27 50% 35% +15
February 2013 Fetal Pain/20-Week Ban 62% 24% +38 43% 33% +10 52% 27% +25
June 2105 Judicial Bypass for Minors 51% 37% +14 46% 29% +17 45% 41% +4
June 2017 Fetal Burial/Cremation 44% 41% +3 40% 37% +3 46% 34% +12
June 2019 6-Week Ban 50% 43% +7 43% 33% +10 45% 42% +3
April 2021 6-Week Ban 52% 44% +8 39% 47% -8 48% 32% +16
April 2021 Abortion law violation bounties 47% 38% +9 37% 39% -2 40% 35% +5
April 2021 Ban Abortion if Roe v. Wade overturned 38% 53% -15 26% 58% -32 29% 54% -25
June 2021 6-Week Ban 52% 42% +10 28% 56% -28 35% 50% -15
June 2021 Ban Abortion if Roe v. Wade overturned 42% 49% -7 17% 68% -51 34% 54% -20
  AVERAGE: 50% 40% +10 35% 46% -11 44% 40% +4

And among urban, rural, and suburban voters.

Support/Opposition to Texas Abortion Laws by Location
(University of Texas / Texas Tribune Polling)
    Urban Suburban Rural
Poll Policy TOTAL SUPPORT TOTAL OPPOSE NET SUPPORT TOTAL SUPPORT TOTAL OPPOSE NET SUPPORT TOTAL SUPPORT TOTAL OPPOSE NET SUPPORT
February 2011 Sonogram Bill 48% 44% +4 55% 34% +21 59% 30% +29
May 2011 Sonogram Bill 45% 42% +3 45% 46% -1 67% 23% +44
February 2013 Fetal Pain/20-Week Ban 51% 31% +20 57% 25% +32 65% 21% +45
June 2105 Judicial Bypass for Minors 43% 41% +2 53% 37% +16 53% 27% +26
June 2017 Fetal Burial/Cremation 37% 40% -3 42% 43% -1 58% 27% +31
June 2019 6-Week Ban 42% 43% -1 48% 44% +4 56% 36% +20
April 2021 6-Week Ban 43% 46% -3 48% 44$ +4 57% 31% +26
April 2021 Abortion law violation bounties 37% 44% -7 44% 37% +7 56% 28% +28
April 2021 Ban Abortion if Roe v. Wade overturned 23% 64% -41 36% 52% -16 42% 45% -3
June 2021 6-Week Ban 31% 58% -27 47% 44% +3 59% 31% +28
June 2021 Ban Abortion if Roe v. Wade overturned 27% 60% -33 37% 53% -16 48% 41% +7
  AVERAGE: 39% 47% -8 47% 42% +5 56% 31% +26

It’s too soon to tell how reactions to these policies will play out in the 2022 elections, given uncertainty about judicial rulings in the interim. But expect this issue to become more salient to voters — which appears to be happening already.

4. Texas has received a lot of national attention lately for voting rights and the border, but no issue has garnered the same spike in attention as has Texas’ new abortion laws, despite stout competition. This is not polling data, but it’s worth noting the relative search volume in Texas for “voting”, “border”, and “abortion” since the beginning of the year. The spike in interest at the time that Texas passed its newest set of abortion restrictions might be taken as a first warning sign about the potential this topic has to motivate the electorate — one way or another.

****

The GOP’s success in passing its most restrictive abortion legislation yet in one of the youngest, most diverse, and most urban states in the country is about to set up a test of the power that abortion politics exerts on Texas politics, and in turn, on national politics. To say that Republican elected officials are beholden to their primary electorate is not a novel observation and should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid even scant attention to politics in the state. But after more than a decade of some tentative, some direct, forays into limiting access to abortion, a de facto ban clearly intended to appeal to a mobilized share of GOP primary voters may provide the most direct test yet of the long anticipated potential for counter-mobilization — perhaps even (maybe especially) among non-Democrats who repeatedly oppose abolition to abortion access. 

 

* While 34% in support of a total ban on abortion should Roe v. Wade be overturned imply more support for an outright abortion ban than the data described above, in which 13% of Texans would ban abortion in all circumstances, the differences in those results is almost surely a reflection of what each question is asking. The item asking about support for banning abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned makes no mention of specific circumstances, and as such, is a measure of a general orientation towards the most extreme prohibitions. However, we know from the polling described above, as well as from other survey items in the UT/TT poll that ask specifically about the circumstances under which a woman should be able to obtain an abortion, that there is significant, widespread support for allowing abortion in the case of rape and incest, which the item on a ban in response to the supreme court requires no consideration of on the part of the respondent.