As the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision takes place on Tuesday, a majority of Americans – for the first time – believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
What’s more, seven in 10 respondents oppose Roe v. Wade being overturned, which is the highest percentage on this question since 1989.
“These are profound changes,” says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted this survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart and his colleagues.
McInturff adds that the abortion-related events and rhetoric over the past year – which included controversial remarks on abortion and rape by two Republican Senate candidates, as well as a highly charged debate over contraception – helped shaped these changing poll numbers.
“The dialogue we have had in the last year has contributed … to inform and shift attitudes.”
Jan. 22, 1973: NBC's Garrick Utley and Betty Rollin report on the landmark decision by the Supreme Court on the issue of abortion.
The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy.
According to the poll, 54 percent of adults say that abortion should be legal either always or most of the time, while a combined 44 percent said it should be illegal – either with or without exceptions.
That’s the first time since this poll question was first asked in 2003 that a majority maintained that abortion should be legal. Previously (with just one exception in 2008), majorities said abortion should be illegal.
In addition, a whopping 70 percent of Americans oppose the Roe v. Wade decision being overturned, including 57 percent who feel strongly about this.
That’s up from the 58 percent who said the decision shouldn’t be overturned in 1989; the 60 percent who said this in 2002; and the 66 percent who said this in 2005.
By comparison, just 24 percent now want the Roe v. Wade decision overturned, including 21 percent who feel strongly about this position.
Much of this change, the NBC/WSJ pollsters say, is coming from African Americans, Latinos and women without college degrees -- all of whom increasingly oppose the Supreme Court decision being overturned.
The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Jan. 12-15 of 1,000 adults (including 300 cellphone-only respondents), and it has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.
Updated at 3 a.m. ET: The Year of the Woman, 1992, was declared a triumph when the number of women in the Senate increased to six.
Cheryl Senter / AP file
Now that Maggie Hassan has been elected as governor of New Hampshire, her state will assume the distinction of being the only state with a woman governor and an all-female Congressional delegation (two senators and one congresswoman). Washington state passed on a version of that baton on Tuesday night, as Gov. Chris Gregoire is retiring and the two candidates running for her position are men.
This year, the so-called "War on Women" energized Democrats to break a record for the number of women-held seats in the Senate. Nineteen women are in the Senate now, one more than the record set during the last Congress.
Among them are Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren who became the first female senator of Massachusetts when she ousted Sen. Scott Brown; Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay senator, who edged out former Governor Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin; and incumbent Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who beat Republican Todd Akin whose comments about rape were likely his demise.
No one disputes there remains a dramatic gender gap in Congress, where women make up just 17 percent of the House and the Senate. But women have slowly gained political power since 1991, when there were just two women in the Senate.
The new U.S. Senate will have a record number of women, ranging from the first Asian-American woman elected -- to consumer advocate and Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.
NBC has also confirmed that Deb Fischer, a Republican, beat former Sen. Bob Kerrey in Nebraska, that Democrat Mazie Hirono in Hawaii beat Linda Lingle, becoming the Senate's first Asian-American woman.
Among incumbents, Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Dianne Feinstein of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Maria Cantwell of Washington state won reelection by wide margins.
Also significant: Roughly half the 33 Senate races had a viable female candidate, more than ever before, according to NPR. That’s noteworthy because women less often seek out office or have more trouble raising campaign money.
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
Elizabeth Warren waves to supporters before voting at the Graham and Park School 44 in Cambridge, Mass.
“There’s no group that will be impacted more by this election than women,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said on her website. “Look at the bills the GOP House has passed this Congress: they voted to redefine rape, they voted to defund Planned Parenthood and Title X funding.”
Gillibrand herself easily won re-election over Republican Wendy Long.
There will be fewer female governors after this election, however. There are currently six women governors out of 50, and Govs. Chris Gregoire of Washington and Bev Perdue of North Carolina, both Democrats, are retiring.
American University professor Jen Lawless discusses how Elizabeth Warren's win in the Massachusetts senate race will impact other women candidates.
Gregoire’s retirement means Washington state will lose its distinction of having a female governor and two female senators at the same time. Now that Democrat Maggie Hassan has been elected governor, New Hampshire will assume that distinction -- and then some: the state's governor and Congressional delegation is female, EMILY's List posted Tuesday night.
"We've always had a tradition of a lot of women running for office in New Hampshire," New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, told NBC's Brian Williams on Tuesday.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat who was first elected in the Year of the Woman, served as the party’s chief recruiter, seeking out qualified women and capitalizing on the "war on women" in a speech she made at the Democratic convention in early September.
(Murray was not up for re-election this cycle.)
Office of Sen. Maria Cantwell
This photo, hanging in Sen. Maria Cantwell's lobby in Washington, D.C., shows Cantwell, left, Gov. Chris Gregoire, center, and Sen. Patty Murray touring Washington state flood damage in 2009.
Murray recruited Baldwin and Shelley Berkley of Nevada, who was running against Dean Heller.
"When we started this campaign, no one, and I mean no one gave us a chance," said Murray on Tuesday night, according to the Huffington Post. "But we went out and built the best Senate campaigns in the history of the country. We recruited some of the highest quality candidates, including a record number of women. Democrats never let up and now we will retain our majority in the United States Senate."
McCaskill, the incumbent, was in danger of losing her seat until Akin said in a television interview that "legitimate" rape would not result in a pregnancy, because the female body “has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
His comments, decried as sexist and out of touch, returned McCaskill to the game.
In the month after Akin made those remarks, EMILY's List, which supports women candidates, raised $2.3 million, the Wall Street Journal reported. After another rape comment, made by another GOP candidate, EMILY’s List raised another $631,000.
In New York, Gillibrand made women’s issues a theme in her re-election campaign. One ad opens with her pointing out that she is one of the only female senators with young children.
Her ad concludes: “I’m Kirsten Gillibrand and I approve this message, because if 51 percent of Congress were women, we wouldn’t be debating contraception, we would be debating jobs and the economy.”
Updated at 12:53 p.m. ET- President Barack Obama announced Friday that the administration will not require religious-affiliated institutions to cover birth control for their employees.
Capping weeks of growing controversy, Obama said he was backing off a newly announced requirement for religious employers to provide free birth control coverage even if it runs counter to their religious beliefs.
Instead, workers at such institutions will be able to get free birth control coverage directly from health insurance companies.
"Under the rule, women will still have access to free preventive care that includes contraceptive services no matter where they work. That core principle remains," he said from the White House briefing room.
"Religious liberty will be protected and a law that requires free preventative care will not discriminate against women," Obama added.
An announcement from the White House reveals that later today the President will announce contraception rule changes. NBC's Kristen Welker reports.
Planned Parenthood responded Friday with a statement, saying, "The Obama administration has reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring all women will have access to birth control coverage, with no costly co-pays, no additional hurdles, and no matter where they work ... we will be vigilant in holding the administration and the institutions accountable for a rigorous, fair and consistent implementation of the policy ..."
Following an intense White House debate that led to the original policy, officials said Obama seriously weighed the concerns over religious liberty, leading to the revamped decision.
It was just on Jan. 20 that the Obama administration announced that religious-affiliated employers -- outside of churches and houses of worships -- had to cover birth control free of charge as preventative care for women.
These hospitals, schools and charities were given an extra year to comply, until August 2013, but that concession failed to satisfy opponents, who responded with outrage.
Catholic cardinals and bishops across the country assailed the policy in Sunday Masses. Republican leaders in Congress promised emergency legislation to overturn Obama's move. The president's rivals in the race for the White House accused him of attacking religion. Prominent lawmakers from Obama's own party began openly deriding the policy.
The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson and MSNBC's Chris Matthews join a conversation on how the White House will respond to the Catholic Church's demands.
The sentiment on the other side, though, was also fierce. Women's groups, liberal religious leaders and health advocates pressed Obama not to cave in on the issue.
The furor has consumed media attention and threatened to undermine Obama's re-election bid just as he was in a stride over improving economic news.
Political reality forced the White House to come up with a solution to a complex matter must faster than anticipated.
The fact that Obama delivered the news himself was a sign of the stakes.