Little enthusiasm in Canada and U.S. for heating up abortion debate: poll

For weeks, it seemed that the issue of abortion, which used to dominate the airwaves in political campaigns in the United States, would not be a feature of this year’s presidential election.

Americans are more preoccupied with other matters, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and race relations, to ponder rules and regulations regarding pregnancy termination.

With social distancing guidelines in place around the country, not even marches and protests are feasible at this time. But this was before the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presented an opportunity for President Donald Trump to appoint a substitute that would tilt the high court towards the right.

In Canada, our reintroduction to this topic happened during the Conservative Party’s leadership race, after eventual winner Erin O’Toole was criticized for his “pro-choice” stance. The governing Liberal Party will not remotely consider changes to the status quo, especially after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to support abortion rights in the last federal campaign.

Research Co. and Glacier Media are tracking the views of Canadians and Americans on abortion on a yearly basis. We completed our most recent survey in early September, after O’Toole became the new Tory leader but prior to Ginsburg’s passing.

The appetite for a deep examination on this particular topic is low across the two countries. In Canada, only one in four respondents (25%) think a debate on abortion is long overdue and the discussion should be reopened, down 12 points since 2019. In the United States, the drop was steeper. Last year, 46% of Americans were ready to discuss abortion. In 2020, only 30% feel the same way.

Almost half of Canadians (48%, up two points in a year) believe abortion should be legal under any circumstances. A smaller proportion (36%, down seven points) thinks the procedure should only be allowed under certain circumstances. The pluralities are flipped in the United States, with 44% of Americans (down four points) arguing that abortion should only be allowed under certain circumstances, and 37% (up nine points) who think the procedure should always be legal.

One key difference in the two countries is the perception of women. In Canada, female respondents are more likely to defend the concept of legal abortion under any circumstances (49%) than male respondents (46%). In the United States, more men (39%) uphold the legality of the procedure than women (34%).

The groups of voters who can be mobilized exclusively by their position on abortion is low in the United States and minuscule in Canada. Only 13% of Americans (down six points) believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. In Canada, 8% of respondents (up three points) hold the same point of view. These findings provide great background for the type of analysis that the Conservatives will require in Canada and the Republicans usually consider in the United States.

Americans know that President Trump has vowed to offer the court’s seat to a woman, but the U.S. Senate still has to go through the process of vetting and confirmation. The country’s “pro-life” movement requires a case to make its way into the Supreme Court’s docket in order to, conceivably, reach the desired eradication of abortion across the entire country.

Still, this is an issue that galvanizes only 20% of the Republican base, with the rest believing in some form of legal abortion or not having an opinion on the issue.

The challenge is greater in Canada. In the four years of Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority mandate, from 2011 to 2015, abortion was rarely discussed and no real attempts were made to pass any legislation.

In our survey, only 11% of Conservative Party voters argued in favour of prohibiting abortion in all of its forms. It would be unwise for the official opposition to take this cause to the next level and risk alienating voters who are looking at them as a sensible option for economic management.

In short, the appetite for an upheaval on the issue of abortion is not particularly high in either nation. Canadians are more likely to support the right to legal pregnancy termination than Americans, and the voices that would proscribe the procedure altogether are at a pointedly lower level.

Trump may see the Supreme Court opening as an opportunity to lead the country into a new debate on abortion – even if he is no longer in the White House four months from now. It is an issue that may motivate his base, but does little to expand it at a time when he trails Democratic Party rival Joe Biden at the national level.

In Canada, O’Toole intelligently moved away from the issue of abortion immediately after winning the leadership race. The proportion of his party’s voters who demand action is low, and the risk of losing the support of fiscally conservative voters is significantly greater.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.


Results are based on online studies conducted from September 4 to September 6, 2020, among representative samples of 1,000 adults in Canada and 1,200 adults in the United States. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian and U.S. census figures for age, gender and region in each country. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for Canada and plus or minus 2.8 percentage points for the United States.