Washington (CNN) – The controversy over Rep. Todd Akin's comments on abortion appears to have created a significant shift in public opinion on that issue, principally among younger Americans, according to a new nationwide poll by CNN/ORC International.
The Republican Senate nominee in Missouri and six-term congressman, who has deep ties to Christian conservatives, sparked a firestorm following comments in a TV interview Sunday when he said that a woman's body is capable of preventing pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape" while explaining his stance that there should be no abortion exemption for rape or incest.
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The poll, conducted Wednesday and Thursday and released Friday, indicates that 83% of Americans say that abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest, with similar numbers believing abortion should be legal when the life or health of the mother is endangered.
"Those aren't topics that Americans like to think about, but the recent controversy over Akin's remarks may have provided a stark reminder to many Americans that there are at least a few circumstances under which they support legal abortion," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
As a result, the number who believe that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances has dropped from 21% last year to 15% now. The debate also appears to have boosted the number of Americans who say that abortion should be legal under any circumstances - from 25% a year ago to 35% now, the highest level of support for unrestricted abortion since mid-1990s.
"A generation gap, rather than a gender gap, may be behind that change," adds Holland. The number of younger Americans who think abortion should be legal under any circumstances jumped 19 points since last year, compared to single-digit changes among older Americans. "The survey indicates support among women increased 12 points, compared to eight points among men, indicating that gender has a role in shaping opinion on abortion but may not be as important as age."
The survey indicates that Republicans who oppose abortion in all circumstances are in a decided minority, even within their own party. Eighty-three percent of all Americans - and 76% of all Republicans - think abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest. Eighty-three percent of Americans - and 78% of Republicans - support an exception in cases where the woman's health is endangered.
Akin has faced fierce pressure from the GOP to step down from the Senate race, but he says he remains committed to his campaign.
The CNN poll was conducted by ORC International August 22-23, with 1,055 adult Americans questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.
– CNN Political Editor Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report