How Overturning Roe Could Change The Way Americans Think About Abortion

If the conservative Supreme Court justices were hoping that eliminating abortion protections would make Americans think the country was on their side, they might not be as persuasive as they hope. A new preprint from Chelsey Clark and Elizabeth Levy Paluck, researchers at Princeton University, shows that the recent leak of a draft Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade made some Americans more likely to think others wanted abortion protections. Perhaps as a result, these Americans also saw the justices as more out of step with mainstream public opinion.

Clark and Paluck conducted a panel survey of U.S. residents (one that returns to the same group of participants over time) between June 2020 and May 2022, and their study found that the share of panel participants who think that other Americans support legal abortion spiked after the draft opinion became public. Notably, the sample for this survey is not representative of the general U.S. population: Participants tended to be more liberal, younger, whiter and less religious than the American public as a whole. So, while the findings can’t be extrapolated to everyone in the country, several political scientists who did not conduct the research but reviewed the findings told us that the survey’s results are nevertheless an intriguing signal of how some Americans — particularly people on the left — might be responding to the leak.

After the leak, self-identified conservatives were also more likely to say that other people supported legal abortion, although the effect was smaller than among self-identified liberals. In other words, the news that the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe may have made a higher share of panel participants think that Americans want to keep those protections, regardless of what they personally think about abortion.

In the survey, personal attitudes toward the legality and morality of abortion shifted little in response to the leak. But Clark and Paluck believe that media coverage of the leak may have jolted some Americans — particularly liberals — into realizing that support for abortion rights is more widespread than they’d thought. “The leak comes out, and then there are all these headlines about outrage, about how this is going against the majority opinion of Americans,” Clark, a doctoral student in social psychology who is leading the study, told me. “That actually appears to be changing how some people are thinking about the social environment around them — what other people find to be acceptable.”

It’s worth reiterating: Paluck and Clark’s sample is unweighted, and therefore, it isn’t representative of the country as a whole. That being said, the findings do point to how liberals in particular might be thinking about the issue. “It’s likely that [the study’s participants] do reflect a large proportion of Americans — we just can’t say with certainty that they do,” said Sean Westwood, a professor of government at Dartmouth College who reviewed the study’s findings.

The strength of the study is its ability to return to the same participants again and again and to see what does — and doesn’t — change their minds. And the leak did have an impact on some of those participants. “I think what we’re seeing here is an epiphany of sorts,” said Donald P. Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University who also reviewed the study’s findings. “You see the liberal public, especially, being increasingly alarmed at the prospect of an activist, conservative court. It’s like they’re poker players who have just seen someone lay down their hand.” This lines up, too, with other recent polling suggesting that Democrats are more likely to identify as “pro-choice” than they were before the leak.

The study also picked up a shift in panel participants’ view of the Supreme Court more broadly. The share of participants who believe the Supreme Court is conservative also rose after the leak. Unlike the shift in perceptions of the extent to which other Americans support legal abortion, though, this change had been building for a while. The shift seems to have accelerated between a survey from August 2020 and one from November 2021. And it was likely affected by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal, being replaced by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative, giving the court’s right wing an even stronger, six-justice majority.

Those results are especially noteworthy given the findings of another recent study from a group of scholars who have tracked public opinion of the court’s decisions over more than a decade. The court’s opinions have taken a sharp right turn in recent years, but not everyone realized that was happening. “​​Democrats are kind of bad at understanding how conservative the court is,” said Maya Sen, a professor at Harvard University and one of the co-authors of the paper. But it makes sense, she added, that the leak would have changed that, at least for some people. 

According to Sen, people tend to widely recognize only two Supreme Court cases — Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade. “So boom, we have the news that the court is going to overturn this quite popular, very widely known precedent,” she said. Clark and Paluck’s findings make a lot of sense in that context. “There’s a huge spotlight that’s all of a sudden being shined on a court that’s been operating under the radar, and showing this is actually a really conservative court,” she said.

The leaked opinion, of course, was just a draft. At some point in the next few weeks, the actual ruling will come out, and it could look different. But Clark said that if the court does overturn Roe, outrage would could easily continue to grow. After all, such a ruling would lead to more media coverage as well as more discussion of how the court’s decision doesn’t reflect where most Americans stand on abortion. Even if people’s individual views don’t change much, the perception that the court’s action is out of step with public opinion could embolden people on the left to protest and talk to their neighbors about the issue — which could, in turn, reinforce the perception that the court’s action is far more conservative than many Americans want.

And ultimately, that could be dangerous for the Supreme Court. In the past, the justices have generally hewed to public opinion, in part because there’s always the possibility that they could be reined in by the other branches of government. Right now, the risk to the court looks pretty low since few congressional Democrats seem interested in adding more justices to the court — which is their main option for responding. But the findings from Clark and Paluck’s study, as well as from the study co-authored by Sen, suggest that court reform could get more popular. Clark and Paluck found that, after the leak of the Dobbs draft, the liberal participants in their panel survey were more in favor of reducing the court’s power to decide certain types of controversial issues, and Sen and her co-authors similarly found that Democrats who were more aware of how conservative the court really is were more in favor of measures to curb its power.

Whether that will translate into action by politicians is, of course, much harder to predict. But these findings suggest that overturning Roe isn’t a risk-free proposition for the justices — in fact, a backlash could already be brewing.