Summary of Findings

Public acceptance of homosexuality has increased in a number of ways in recent years, though it remains a deeply divisive issue. Half of Americans (51%) continue to oppose legalizing gay marriage, but this number has declined significantly from 63% in February 2004, when opposition spiked following the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision and remained high throughout the 2004 election season. Opposition to gay marriage has fallen across the board, with substantial declines even among Republicans.

These are among the results of the latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted among 1,405 adults from March 8-12. The poll also finds less opposition to gays serving openly in the military and a greater public willingness to allow gays to adopt children. A 60% majority now favors allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, up from 52% in 1994, and 46% support gay adoption, up from 38% in 1999.

Despite the fact that gay marriage initiatives are on the ballot in seven states this year, the atmosphere surrounding the issue of gay marriage has cooled off, and public intensity has dissipated compared with two years ago. “Strong” opposition to gay marriage, which surged in 2004, has ebbed to a new low. This is particularly the case among seniors, Catholics and non-evangelical Protestants. Among people age 65 and over, for example, strong opposition to gay marriage jumped from 36% in 2003 to 58% in 2004, but has fallen to 33% today. White evangelical Protestants are the only major group in which a majority still strongly opposes gay marriage, but even here the intensity of feeling has receded somewhat.

On another social issue, the survey also finds that by a 58%-to-34% margin most Americans would oppose a national version of South Dakota’s new law banning abortion in all cases unless the mother’s life is endangered. However, supporters of such a law place a much higher priority on the issue, and are more politically active than opponents. The South Dakota law has not yet become a galvanizing issue for supporters of abortion rights. Even those who express strong opposition to abortion restrictions don’t see abortion as a critical issue facing the country, while those who strongly support abortion restrictions do. As a result, proponents of a national law modeled after South Dakota’s are twice as likely to have donated money, written letters, or participated in activities related to the cause over the past year as are those who would oppose such a change.

The gap in intensity of feelings about the abortion issue is greatest among younger Americans. Young people who take a generally pro-life position are the most likely to say it is a critical issue for the country, and are twice as likely as young people who favor abortion access to have taken action over the past year to advocate their position.

The survey also finds the public continuing to express mixed views of Medicare’s new prescription drug program. On the positive side, most (54%) who have enrolled or looked into the program say the process is easy, not difficult. But just 39% of those already enrolled or currently enrolling believe the program will end up saving them money; 18% think it will cost them more and for the rest it appears to be a wash. More generally, while a slim majority of Americans approves of the program, and more say it will be good for seniors than say it will be bad, it is the seniors themselves, as well as those age 50-64, who are the most likely to disapprove. In addition, as many as one-in-three who are eligible for the Medicare prescription drug program say they do not intend to enroll.

Even as health care rides high as a top national issue, the public’s personal health care concerns are not substantially greater today than in the early 1990s. Personal anxiety is highest about the possible costs of a major illness or long-term care toward the end of life, as well as the loss of insurance or benefits from job changes or employer cutbacks. Routine medical costs, including prescriptions, are less of a concern, though 44% say the cost of prescription drugs is a major problem for their family. Drug costs are of no greater concern among seniors than among younger Americans.

On the issue of the government’s policy of holding suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay without formal charges or trial, the public is divided (44% favor, 43% oppose). There is a substantial partisan divide, with most Republicans (63%) supporting the policy, and most Democrats (57%) opposed.

Opposition to Gay Marriage Declines

After peaking during the 2004 election, opposition to allowing gays and lesbians to marry has faded in recent years. Currently, 51% oppose legalizing gay marriage, down from a recent high of 63% just two years ago in February of 2004. The percent who favor allowing gay marriage has increased from a low of 29% in August of that year to 39% today.

These figures are in keeping with the long-term trend toward acceptance of gay marriage seen in surveys leading up to the 2004 race. In June of 1996 just 27% favored legalizing gay marriage, a figure which rose to 35% in March of 2001 and 38% in the summer of 2003. This growing support fell away during the debates surrounding gay marriage that were sparked largely by the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision in February 2004, a resurgence in opposition that lasted throughout the rest of the election year.

The turnaround over the past two years is particularly distinct in the change among those who say they “strongly oppose” legalizing gay marriage. Just 28% take this position today, down from 42% in February of 2004, and the decline has been sharpest among seniors, Republicans and more moderate religious groups. Fully 58% of Americans age 65 and older strongly opposed gay marriage in 2004; only 33% are strongly opposed now. Two years ago 59% of Republicans strongly opposed gay marriage, while just 41% take this position today. And both white Catholics and non-evangelical Protestants are half as likely to strongly oppose gay marriage today as they were in 2004. Opposition remains strongest among white evangelical Protestants, 56% of whom strongly oppose legalizing gay marriage, down from 65% two years ago.

In all of these cases, current attitudes are in line with both the balance of opinion and intensity of opinion in the summer of 2003, before the issue gained widespread public attention. While the issue of gay marriage is not currently high on the public’s agenda, there are seven states which have gay marriage amendments on the ballot this fall.

Public Divided over Gay Adoption

The balance of public opinion on the issue of gay adoption has shifted significantly over the past seven years. In 1999, most Americans (57%) opposed allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children, while just 38% were in favor. Today, the public is divided about evenly ­ the percent who favor allowing gay adoption has grown to 46% while 48% are opposed.

The partisan gap over this issue, however, has grown substantially during this time period, as Democrats and independents have become more supportive of allowing gay adoptions while Republicans remain mostly opposed. Currently, 55% of Democrats favor letting gays and lesbians adopt children, as do 52% of independents, while just 30% of Republicans take this view.

There is a dramatic difference of opinion over gay adoption within both party coa
litions as well. By nearly four-to-one (77% to 20%) most conservative Republicans oppose allowing gay adoption, while moderate and liberal Republicans are divided almost evenly (48% oppose, 43% favor). Similarly, there is a general consensus among liberal Democrats that gay adoption should be allowed (76% vs. 19% who are opposed) while conservative and moderate Democrats are split evenly (46% favor, 49% oppose).

White evangelical Protestants remain strongly opposed to allowing gay marriage: 75% say this is unacceptable while 22% approve, virtually unchanged from 1999. Meanwhile, the balance of opinion among Catholics has shifted notably ­ currently 55% favor allowing gays and lesbians to adopt while 37% are opposed. Seven years ago, 50% of Catholics opposed this idea, while 45% were in favor.

When age is taken into account, younger people remain the most open to the idea of gay adoption ­ most people under age 30 favor allowing gay adoption (by a margin of 58% to 38%) while most people 65 and older are opposed (by a 62% to 32% margin). Those between 30 and 64 are divided almost evenly.

Two-to-One Support for Allowing Gays in the Military

The public supports a policy of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military by a margin of 60% to 32%. This represents significantly broader support for this inclusive policy than in 1994, when 52% favored allowing gays to serve openly and 45% were opposed.

Support has grown in most segments of society, particularly among young people ­ those under age 30 favor an open policy by three-to-one (72% to 23%). But the balance of opinion has shifted in favor of allowing open service across all age groups.

Regionally, the South has seen the biggest change in opinion on this issue. In 1994 the South was the only region in which a majority of residents (55%) opposed allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. Today, just 35% in the South take this position, while 58% support open service.

Republicans are divided on the issue ­ 46% favor allowing gays to serve openly and 46% are opposed. A majority of conservative Republicans oppose such a policy, while moderate and liberal Republicans favor it by a wide margin (62%-29%). Democrats of all ideological groups tend to favor allowing gays in the military, though liberal Democrats are nearly universal in their support (85%-9%). Independents also favor the policy by a 66%-to-30% margin.

South Dakota’s Abortion Ban

News about South Dakota’s new law banning all abortions unless the mother’s life is in danger drew the very close attention of just one-in-five Americans (21%) ­ fully a quarter (26%) say they didn’t follow it closely at all.

In terms of public attention, the story ranked far below news from Iraq (43% followed very closely), the ports deal (41%), post-Katrina rebuilding (36%) and Vice President Cheney’s hunting accident (31%). Both pro-life and pro-choice Americans were equally uninterested in the story, though on both sides of the issue those who feel strongly about abortion paid closer attention.

By a 58% to 34% margin, most Americans oppose the idea of extending South Dakota’s near total ban on abortion nationwide. Public reactions to the law follow a pattern similar to that on other questions about abortion: No gender gap emerges, and only a slight difference of opinion is seen across age groups, with seniors more supportive of further restrictions on abortion than those under age 65. College graduates, as well as residents of the Northeast and West express more opposition to such a restriction on access to abortions than do either those without a college degree or people residing in the Midwest and South. However, across all of these groups, majorities say they would oppose extending this law beyond South Dakota.

Republicans Divided over Abortion Ban

Ideology and religion are the factors most closely associated with views on this issue. Just over half of Republicans (51%) favor expanding a law like South Dakota’s to the nation, but this masks a severe division of opinion within the party ­ conservative Republicans favor this idea by two- to-one (65% to 31%) while moderate and liberal Republicans oppose it by about the same margin (61% to 30%). There is also a divide among Democrats, but not nearly as sizeable ­ 34% of conservative and moderate Democrats favor this kind of abortion ban at the national level compared with just 12% of liberal Democrats, with majorities in both groups opposing the idea.

White evangelical Protestants are the only major religious group to favor a broad abortion ban like South Dakota’s ­ 59% favor this becoming a national law while 36% are opposed. The balance of opinion among other Protestants, Catholics and seculars is against this type of proposal.

Abortion Issue More Important to Opponents

Americans differ not only over how the issue of abortion should be legislated, but how important an issue it is for the country. Just over a quarter (28%) of Americans consider abortion to be a critical issue facing the country, and another 38% say it is one among many important issues. Nearly a third, however, (32%) say abortion is not that important compared to other issues.

On both sides, those with strong views are more likely to say abortion is a critical issue, but there is a sizable intensity gap with those taking a pro-life position rating the issue as far more important. For example, one in three (34%) supporters of extending the South Dakota ban to the rest of the nation say abortion is a critical issue for the country, compared with 25% of those who would oppose extending the ban.

The intensity gap is even starker when strong supporters and opponents of restricting abortion are compared. When asked whether they favor or oppose making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, 15% of Americans strongly favor making it more difficult while 24% strongly oppose such a move. While fewer in number, these strong abortion opponents rate the issue as far more important. Nearly half (48%) of those who strongly favor making it more difficult to get an abortion say it is a critical issue for the country. This compares to just 29% of people who strongly oppose making abortion more difficult. Just as starkly, 31% of strong supporters of a woman’s right to choose say the issue is “not that important compared to other issues.” Only 13% of strong abortion opponents say the same.

Intensity Gap among Young, Women

Younger people are among those most likely to consider abortion a critical issue. Fully 35% of those under 30 say it is critical, compared with 26% of people age 30 and over. This disparity is strongest on the pro-life side of the debate ­ 45% of young abortion opponents rate it as a critical issue, far more than among older abortion foes. As a result, the intensity gap between supporters and opponents of abortion rights is most extreme among younger people. Young people who take a generally pro-life position are 14-points more likely to rate it as a critical issue than young people who do not want to see abortion restricted further (45% vs. 31%). This same difference in the importance given to the abortion issue can be seen among older Americans groups as well, though the gap is less extreme.

Women who favor further restrictions on abortion also stand out for the emphasis they place on the issue. Fully 38% of women who want more limits on abortion access say it is a critical issue for the country, compared
with just 25% of women who oppose greater restrictions.

Abortion Opponents Also More Vocal

More than one-in-ten (13%) Americans say they have expressed their views on abortion in the past year through activities such as donating money to groups, participating in marches or rallies, or writing letters to the news media or their representatives. Those seeking to restrict abortions are the most likely to be performing these activities, reflecting the critical importance they place on the issue.

Those who support the South Dakota ban becoming a national law are twice as likely to have actively expressed their views than are those who oppose it. Similarly, over a quarter (27%) of those who strongly favor abortion restrictions say they engage in this level of activism. This compares to just 16% of Americans who strongly oppose making abortion access more difficult.

Pro-Life Women Most Active

Women seeking more restrictions on abortion stand out as one of the groups most engaged in the debate. More than one-in-five (21%) pro-life women report actively expressing their views on abortion through donations, activities or letter writing in the past year. Only 13% of women who oppose abortion restrictions have taken similar steps. On both sides of the issue, men are less likely to have done anything to express their views.

The pro-choice movement has done a better job of activating older supporters than it has among the young. Just 8% of young people who oppose broader abortion restrictions have taken action to express their opinion, compared with 17% of those age 65 and over who share their views. This results in a sizeable activism gap among younger generations. In both the 18-29 and 30-49 age ranges, abortion rights opponents are twice as likely as their more pro-choice counterparts to have taken part in group activities, made donations, or written letters.

Medicare Rx: Good, but Some Concerns

Public views on Medicare’s new prescription drug program remain largely unchanged from December, when the enrollment process was just getting underway. Currently, 51% approve of the new Medicare coverage of prescription drugs for seniors, while 32% disapprove. The program continues to receive far more backing from younger people than their elders. People under age 30 support the program by nearly three-to-one (64% approve, 22% disapprove), while among people age 50 and older about as many disapprove as approve.

People who are eligible for the program hold roughly the same views as those who are not. Just over half (53%) of those who have either enrolled or started looking into their options approve of the program, while 37% disapprove.

While more approve than disapprove of the new Medicare drug program, people volunteer criticism more frequently than praise when asked to describe their first impression of the program in their own words. The two specific problems cited most frequently are that the new program is complicated (mentioned by 18% of Americans) and that it will be costly for both seniors and the government (7%). Other negative comments are more general, such as that it’s “a mess,” it is “chaos” or that “it stinks.” Overall, by more than two-to-one (48% vs. 18%) people are more likely to cite negative than positive aspects of the program when offering their top-of-the-mind impressions.

Seniors (ages 65 and older), regardless of their enrollment status, hold similar impressions of the prescription drug program as does the general public. In particular, they are no more likely to criticize it for being confusing or costly. While there are more negative assessments from seniors, they tend to be general statements such as that the system is “a mess.”

The public’s sense of who is helped and hurt by the new program has not shifted significantly from December. On balance, more say the program will be good for seniors (50%) than bad for seniors (33%). However, it is drug companies that are seen as the clear winners. There is somewhat more pessimism about the costliness of the program today ­ 48% believe it will end up being bad for the federal budget deficit, up from 42% in December.

Experiences with Medicare Enrollment

Most seniors (87%) say they are eligible for the new Medicare prescription drug program. Among all eligible, about half (52%) say they have taken steps to enroll in the program. Another 13% haven’t looked into it yet and a third say they don’t plan to enroll at all. People’s experiences with the enrollment process vary greatly. In particular, those who have already finished enrolling tend to be satisfied with both the process itself and the likelihood that it will help them. By comparison, people who have looked into it but haven’t formally enrolled yet appear to be more skeptical that they will end up doing well under the new plan, though the number of respondents in this category is quite small (N=66).

So Far, Most Say Process is Easy

By a 54% to 38% margin, more people who have enrolled or looked into enrolling say the process is easy, not difficult. But there is a big difference of opinion between these two groups. Those who have already finished found the process to be easy by two-to-one (64% to 32%) while those still investigating their options tend to say the process is difficult (50%) or not easy (35%). This gap is not necessarily surprising ­ if the process was difficult it would take a person longer to finish, while those for whom it was easy are already done.

Among those who are not eligible for the program, one in five have helped a close friend or family member in the enrollment process. These helpers tend to find the process to be more difficult. This could be for a variety of reasons, such as that the seniors who are facing the most difficult enrollment choices may be the most likely to have asked for help.

A third of people enrolling in Medicare’s prescription drug program (35%) say they have gotten help during the enrollment process ­ 27% specifically said they got help from friends or family, while another 8% volunteered that the help came from other sources.

Choosing Coverage Options

When asked how many coverage options they had to choose from, one-in-five who are enrolled or enrolling couldn’t say, and another 14% said they only had one option to choose from. Among those who could recall their choices, the median number of plan options enrollees report having available to them is three, meaning half say they had three or fewer choices, while the other half had three or more.

Affordability was far and away the most frequently mentioned concern for people in choosing a drug plan under Medicare. Asked to describe, in their own words, the main thing they were looking for in a plan, 63% of enrollees, whether already enrolled or still in the process, cited costs, including concerns about co-pays, deductibles and premiums. One-in-four enrollees specifically mentioned looking at the coverage provided by the plans, what drugs are covered and finding a plan that fits their own medical needs.

People who helped someone else to enroll also report costs as the biggest factor affecting their friend’s or family member’s choice, though drug coverage is mentioned somewhat more often by this group. Relatively few in either group
say they prioritized such factors as convenience, simplicity, the company’s reputation or service in terms of personal help or assistance when choosing a drug plan.

About a quarter (24%) of people enrolling in the prescription drug program say that either they or someone helping them has used the Medicare website to help them learn about their options. This includes 40% of enrollees who themselves are internet users, and 17% of those who do not use the internet and may in this case have gotten help from friends or family.

People who are helping someone else to enroll are more likely to have turned to Medicare’s website (37% report using it). As these helpers are younger, their internet use is significantly higher in general.

Solving the Enrollment Puzzle

Overall, 43% of Americans who are enrolled or enrolling say they are very confident they have picked or will be able to choose the prescription drug plan that best fits their needs. Those who have already finished the process of enrolling are the most confident ­ 57% say they are very confident and another 22% somewhat confident. Those still learning about their options are less optimistic that they will solve the puzzle ­ just 18% feel very confident they will be able to locate the plan that best fits their needs, 43% are somewhat confident, and more than a third are either not too confident (19%) or not at all confident (17%).

Those who have already finished are also the most optimistic about the program’s effect on their own prescription drug costs. Nearly half (48%) say the new program will save them money over what they paid before, while 18% believe it will cost them more. Those still investigating their options take a more mixed view ­ only 21% think they will end up ahead, while 18% feel it will end up costing them more. How many prescriptions a person currently has is unrelated to expectations about cost savings ­ those who report having five or more regular prescriptions themselves are no more or less likely to foresee savings from the program than do those with fewer prescriptions.

Costs, Not Availability, Are Biggest Medical Problem

Just over half of Americans report that the possibility of paying for the costs of long-term care in a nursing home is a major problem for them and their family, and just as many see paying for the costs of a major illness as a major problem. These top the list of personal medical problems Americans point to as having a major impact on their lives. About half also cite the possibility of losing insurance if they lose or change jobs as a major problem, and the same number worry a lot that their employer might cut back on health care benefits or make them pay a larger share of the costs.

Some concerns are less widespread than they were in the early 1990s both before and during the period in which Bill Clinton’s health care reform proposal was being debated. Long- term costs of nursing home or elderly care were a much greater concern in the 1990s than they are today, and in 1993 more Americans said the costs of a major illness was a major problem for them.

Other concerns have shifted in a less uniform way. Currently, 51% say the possibility of employer benefit cuts is a major problem for them and their family. This is up from 42% in the summer of 1994, and about even with the 53% who saw this as a major problem in April of 1993.

Access to health care is less widely viewed as a major problem. About one-in-four (26%) rate the quality of hospital care in their community as a major problem in their lives ­ this too is up from 15% in 1994 but about even with the 23% who rated this as a major problem in 1993. The availability of medical care is a major problem for 25% of Americans.

Public Divided over Guantanamo Policy

Americans are divided evenly over whether they favor (44%) or oppose (43%) the government’s policy of holding suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay without formal charges or trial. Not surprisingly, there is a sizeable party divide on this issue, with 63% of Republicans supporting the policy and 57% of Democrats opposed. Unlike many issues related to Iraq and foreign policy where independents align more closely with Democrats, on this question independents are divided evenly, with 44% in favor and 45% opposed.

Aside from politics, the most substantial differences of opinion over Guantanamo Bay fall along racial and gender lines. Blacks oppose the Guantanamo policy by two-to-one (61%-30%) while whites lean in favor by a 47%-to-41% margin. Men also favor the policy by a 52%-to-40% margin, while women are more likely to oppose it (46%) than to be in favor (37%). Women are also twice as likely as men not to have made up their minds either way.

There are no substantial differences of opinion across generations, education levels, or religious backgrounds, other than that non-religious seculars are the least supportive among major religious groups (aside from black Protestants). There is somewhat more opposition to the Guantanamo policy in the Northeast, reflecting the presence of more Democrats in that region.