Headlines broadcasting the pending Supreme Court ruling on abortion commonly pit one “side” against another. “Pro-life” versus “pro-choice.” Abortion rights or abortion opposition. “Healthcare” or “Murder.” It’s seems there’s little room for ambivalence when the stakes are so high and rallying cry so deafening.
But most ordinary Americans’ views on abortion are messy. Complicated. Contradictory, even. Not so easily categorized as “for” or “against.” This messiness means that the political and social implications of overturning Roe—which looks likely in the wake of a leak from the Court—remain unclear.
I am a sociologist and the lead researcher for The National Study of Abortion Attitudes, my team and I interviewed hundreds of Americans in 2019 to better understand what’s behind contemporary abortion thinking in the U.S. We were motivated by the puzzle that confounds statistical summaries of abortion opinion—namely, that so many Americans describe themselves as neither entirely for nor entirely against abortion. It is supported in certain cases but not always. On questions of morality, more Americans say “it depends” than say “morally opposed” or “not morally opposed.”
Surveys can’t tell us much about that kind of equivocation, which is why we turned instead to confidential, 75-minute, face-to-face interviews. To get their opinions, we invited an American group that was representative of the population to give us their thoughts in their own words.
Lucinda was a pseudonym that refers to a Black Christian woman of 28 who lives in the South. We asked her about the ethics and morality behind abortion. “Mostly, I’m opposed to it. However, it does depend. I’m here and there with it.” She explained that, for her, the issue hinges on responsibility. “Have fun,” but “at least use protection or take precautionary measures. Don’t just be out there willy-nilly.” And if someone gets pregnant, well, “that life was meant to be.” Lucinda cringes at the idea of people “just in and out of the abortion clinic.” “I think they should be more responsible. Don’t be such a loosey-goosey.”
But Lucinda—who tells us that she’d answer “legal in certain circumstances” to a survey question on abortion—also shared that she “understands” how someone might take every precaution and still wind up pregnant. If a woman can’t afford more children, her empathy motivates her to support legal abortion. Or she does not wish to marry the husband involved in the pregnancy. Are you married and do not wish to have more children?
“It sucks. But it’s also understandable.”
She doesn’t approve of abortion for “any reason,” either, because people “should have been a little more careful.” Her support wanes as a pregnancy develops. First trimester “is, like, okay.” Second trimester “is really pushing it.” And the third trimester? “That’s just a complete ‘No,’ like, it’s too late for you to do that. I understand you are upset, but it’s a formed life.” “I’m pro-life,” Lucinda says, “but I do still believe people should be able to have a choice.”
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Brad (a 49-year-old white father of two) told us that he wishes to see abortion outlawed apart from situations of rape (“if you can prove it”) or health endangerment (“if the woman’s gonna die”). But he also shared his uncertainty about holding to his convictions “if my 16-year-old daughter comes to me and says, ‘I’m pregnant and I want to have an abortion’… I don’t know what I would do…I cannot say 100% that I would say ‘No, you’ve got to have this baby.’”
We also met 56-year-old Greg, a white nonreligious Democrat in the Mountain West, who supports abortion only as “a last resort” – “it’s certainly not the preferred method of birth control.” And Lauren, 24, white, and unmarried, who wishes someone considering an abortion would “think about it a bit more,” pondering for herself whether “it’s better to just have an abortion than have that child be raised in a really bad environment.” But she also votes to restrict abortion in nearly all circumstances.
Lucinda Brad, Greg, Lauren, and Greg are not the only ones who have a foggy view on abortion. Their blurring of lines between moral and legal views is not uncommon. CouldWhat can you do? Should happen. Pew Research Center has released a new study that examines U.S. attitudes towards abortion. This confirms our interviews. The Pew Research Center found large amounts of Americans opposing abortion, but they still support legality. Americans have opinions which differ by the time of pregnancy and their circumstances, as well as a more complex picture of abortion thought overall.
Messiness abounds in Americans’ attitudes on an issue misleadingly portrayed as mutually exclusive.
The interviewees were passionately opposed to abortion and shared many stories, including those of friends driving them to an abortion clinic, ending their own pregnancy, or walking alongside women who had to go through protests to find a clinic. Americans who support the legal right to abortion spoke also about the irrefutable notion of “babies” in the womb, including their own; of being unable to fathom having an abortion themselves; and of deep discomfort with abortions that occur “too late” in a pregnancy or for “bad” reasons like sex selection or as a substitute for contraception.
It is difficult to imagine Americans engaging in moral thinking as they consider abortion. Our interviewees vacillated confusingly between what was “a right” and what was “right.” To a series of questions on legality, many would offer answers as to what a woman “should” or “shouldn’t” do in the given situation, fusing their moral and legal appraisals. Many of them said they were not sure what to do, but that they would answer a survey or vote in another way.
Of course, abortion for ordinary Americans isn’t deliberated in a courthouse. It’s deliberated personally and interpersonally. A quarter of our female interviewees—like a quarter of U.S. women overall—had an abortion themselves. Three quarters of the respondents knew someone who’d had an abortion. This could be a family member or friend. Talking about abortion can lead to a lot of personal stories, including those regarding miscarriage and infertility as well as the high costs associated with childcare, relationships that have failed, abusive, parenthood and other topics.
The political gets muddy precisely because it’s so personal. Americans’ convictions on abortion, we learned, encounter inconvenient exceptions and questions with neither clear answers nor venues to sort through them.
Attitudinal complexity leaves many Americans feeling sidelined and displaced for their abortion views: ill-fitting in the Democrat and Republican parties, imperfectly aligned within religious traditions, unwilling to join activist movements that don’t readily invite equivocation or gradation. Many opt to keep silent. Many believe they’re the only ones with similar views.
But they aren’t. They’re in company with a wide array of Americans who don’t quite know What to do about abortion. It’s a hard issue, both politically and personally.
Which brings us back to the unpredictability of what happens after the Supreme Court’s impending decision. There’s a chance that the ruling will lay bare the brokenness to how we (don’t) talk about abortion. Maybe it’s also an invitation for a new lexicon, greater empathy, reduced stigma, bolstered support, and a more honest deliberation regarding pregnancy, families, and inequality in the U.S. today. And while it’s hard to predict what comes next, what’s clear is that we’re living a historical moment where we need to engage the conversation.
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