Poll: Majority of Americans favor restricting abortion at 20 weeks

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WASHINGTON -- By a margin of 56 percent to 27 percent, more Americans say they would prefer to impose limits on abortions after the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, rather than the 24-week mark established under current law, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Another 10 percent surveyed in the poll volunteered that they would prefer to outlaw abortion in the United States altogether or limit it earlier than 20 weeks after fertilization. But at the same time, 54 percent say they oppose state laws that make it more difficult for abortion clinics to operate; compared with 45 percent who support such legislation.

Under the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, abortions can be performed until the point when an individual doctor determines a fetus's viability, generally defined as up to 24 weeks of gestation. After that point, the government can bar the procedure so long as it provides safeguards for the mother's health and well-being.

The poll suggests that significant support exists for banning abortions earlier in a woman's pregnancy, but far less for instituting onerous restrictions for abortion providers.

Overall support for legal abortion remains stable, with 55 percent saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 41 percent say it should be illegal in most or all cases.

The poll was conducted July 18-21 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. Results from the full poll have an error margin of 3.5 percentage points.

By more than a 2-to-1 margin -- 66 percent to 30 percent -- Americans, both hard-core abortion rights supporters and foes, say they prefer that abortion laws be decided for all states on the basis of the U.S. Constitution, rather than a state-by-state approach. This applies to both hard-core abortion rights supporters and foes: 73 percent of those who say abortion should always be legal want a national rule, as do 72 percent of those who say it should be illegal in all cases.

Two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. An identical 66 percent of white non-evangelicals say it should be legal. Support for allowing abortion in most or all cases peaks at 73 percent among Americans with no religious affiliation. Catholics divide about evenly: 50 percent legal, 45 percent illegal.

On a practical level, the abortion ground rules are being rewritten at state level, where 50 new restrictions have been adopted since January, the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute says.

Six states have adopted laws banning abortion 20 weeks after fertilization or earlier; Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a possible 2016 presidential contender, is considering introducing legislation to that effect in the Senate.

Earlier this month, Texas' Republican Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation into law that bans abortions after 20 weeks, requires physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and requires all abortions to occur in fully equipped surgical centers.

Some new limits will face legal challenges. In at least three instances -- in Arizona, Georgia and Idaho -- federal and state judges have voided as unconstitutional abortion bans at 20 weeks after fertilization (Arizona set its ban at 18 weeks). On Monday, a federal judge in North Dakota temporarily blocked its law banning abortions as early as six weeks after fertilization, calling that "clearly unconstitutional."

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