LOS ANGELES -- Abortion rights, once a key political wedge issue dividing society, are now so accepted that only 1 in 5 people call it critical and a majority of those younger than 30 don't know that Roe vs. Wade was the Supreme Court case that helped make abortion legal.
The nation next week will mark the 40th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision handed down on Jan. 22, 1973. In its ruling on Roe and a related case, the Supreme Court held that women had a fundamental constitutional right to choose to terminate a pregnancy in the early months, in effect decriminalizing abortions.
The nation, through legislatures and courts, has been fighting over the terms and conditions ever since, with conservatives seeking to limit the right and liberals defending it.
In a poll released Wednesday, the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of those surveyed said abortion is not that important compared to other issues, up from 48 percent in 2009 and 32 percent in 2006. The percentage viewing abortion as a critical issue facing the country fell from 28 percent in 2006 to 15 percent in 2009 and now stands at 18 percent, the group said.
Among those younger than 30, just 44 percent said they knew that the Roe vs. Wade case dealt with abortion rights rather than some other issue. Among those 50 to 64 years old -- baby boomers who had lived through the legal revolution involving reproductive rights -- 74 percent knew that the case was about abortion. Overall, 62 percent did, the poll found.
Abortion remains a political talking point and usually comes up during confirmation hearings for top jurists. It also remains a voting litmus test for some conservatives.
But the latest poll found that 63 percent of respondents said they would not like to see the court overturn Roe vs. Wade, while 29 percent said they would like to see it overturned. These opinions are little changed from surveys conducted 10 and 20 years ago, Pew said.
Religious doctrine forms the basis of some of the opposition to abortion, with opponents of abortion rights often arguing that the sanctity of life begins at conception. According to the poll, white evangelical Protestants are the only major religious group in which a majority, 54 percent, favors overturning Roe vs. Wade decision. White mainline Protestants at 76 percent, black Protestants at 65 percent and white Catholics at 55 percent say the ruling should not be overturned.
The poll was based on telephone interviews Jan. 9-13 with a national sample of 1,502 adults. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.