What Americans’ Complex Views on Abortion Mean for Its Future

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has ushered in complicated and tense conversations at the state level about where and how to draw “the line” on abortion. Kansas results show that the outcomes could be unexpected and that gradations may go beyond what is expected.

My team of sociologists conducted hundreds of interviews in 2019 as a result of polling showing ambivalence (legal support for abortion sometimes, but not always) among Americans. This was to gain a better understanding of how Americans view this topic.

Although there is much public talk to the contrary, many Americans have difficulty answering questions concerning abortion access or regulation. Few give well-rehearsed position statements (“That’s a hard one for me to answer”). Most have limited to no familiarity with abortion laws in their state (“I could not tell you that I know them; I won’t pretend like I do”). Most bring scant medical expertise (“I’m no doctor”). Few talk about abortion in-depth with others (“I’m not one to seek out controversial conversations”).

But it’s to precisely this morass that the current legislative moment in America brings us, redistributed to millions as an issue for the ballot box.

There are certain conditions that can generate a lot of support for legal abortion. Severe health risk to a pregnant woman, for example, made for an “obvious” justification among interviewees who lean toward abortion legality (“It’s clear that women should not be asked to give up their lives for a baby to be born”) and a more reluctant but common (or “only”) exception among those who lean toward abortion restriction (“The doctor says, ‘It’s you or the baby’”; “That’s something that you go and you get special permission for”). Pew Research Center polls show that almost three quarters (75%) of Americans would support legal abortion in this situation. But it’s the doctors who have to determine which circumstances qualify. It’s “self-defense,” said our interviewees; “You have the right to do anything you need to do to protect yourself.”

The minority of Americans unwilling to consider legality even amid threats to a mother’s life and health (11 percent, according to Pew) gave us explanations including: “The health of the mother is something that should be taken into account when first engaging in sexual actions”; “That’s why bedrest was invented”; “Nobody can tell me of an issue with current technology where that’s really a problem”; “A woman that loves that baby is not going to want to abort”; and “It’s up to God.” Mental health risks elicit lower overall support for legal abortion. “Everyone could say their children are giving them mental health issues, so I’m not gonna buy that one.”

Most Americans’ “line” extends also to situations posing a strong chance for a baby’s severe disability or health problem (53 percent among Americans nationally), but interpretations vary widely. Interviewees’ more resolute responses in support of legal abortion cite examples such as paralysis, the need for 24-hour-care, or “where the baby might only live one or two days.” Things like “blindness,” a “cleft lip,” a “missing limb,” or the “pandora’s box” of potential fetal anomalies, as one interviewee put it, garner less support for legal abortion. The inherent dignity, value, dependency and quality life of both the caregiver and the impacted child are all discussed. Sorting out legality on this front, in other words, means sorting through Americans’ commitments to who is “wanted,” cared for, how much “suffering” is okay, who pays, and who decides what is “best.” Legal abortion amid such questions gets categorized by some as “mercy”; by others, as a “slippery slope” leading to “genetically engineered perfect people.”

It gets even more complicated from there.

National polling shows that the majority of Republican interviewees believe that rape should be allowed legal access to abortion. They were also less likely to agree with this view than other respondents. A pregnancy from rape is a “tough one” and “hard,” these interviewees told us, but an abortion is “selfish” when “it’s not the child’s fault” and “we don’t know what that child is bringing to the world.” Some fear that rape allegations may become an “excuse” to gain abortion access. Unlike health-related circumstances that give rise to exceptions among those who oppose abortion otherwise, a pregnancy from rape promises a ready alternative: “Somebody is waiting in line to be able to have the privilege of adopting that child.” A handful of Republican dads confessed that they might make an exception “if that were my daughter.”

Our Democrat interviewees matched their inclination to legality with concerns about late-term abortions for health reasons. “The earlier, the better.” “That third trimester is really difficult for me.” “I think it should be done at an early stage if it’s done at all.” As captured by national polling, the majority of Americans who support legal abortion also support restricting legality by how long a woman has been pregnant. The majority of Democrats support legal abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy. This is half of the group. Interviewees alluded to emotional ties developed through their own pregnancies and reacted with visceral distain to the idea of a non-medically compelled “late” abortion. “If a child is able to be born premature and they have a chance to survive outside the womb, then I don’t agree with abortion.”

There’s also a subtle and harder-to-legislate sentiment among Americans across the board that abortion shouldn’t be the “default” option, taken lightly, or used as “contraception.” “I would hope it wouldn’t be like taking a Tylenol”; “I would hate to see a woman abusing abortion to get out of a situation.” While finances are common among reasons abortion patients themselves give for terminating a pregnancy, almost half of our interviewees disagreed with legal abortion driven by economic need. Money “shouldn’t be a reason” not to have a child; “I was poor and I had kids”; “We do have a welfare system.” Interviewees were nearly divided in their support for legal abortion for a married woman who doesn’t want more children, often interpreting this use of abortion as a form of “birth control” when “there are all kinds of ways to avoid pregnancy these days.” National polling shows similarly that a majority of Americans hold some concern that “easy” access to legal abortion will make people less “careful” with sex and contraception.

Continue reading: Is an abortion lifesaving? It’s Not Always Clear

Everyday Americans vacillate between what feels “right” and “wrong” when it comes to abortion, what makes for “good” or “bad” reasons for it, and whether it is even their place to ask, know, or say so. The law offers a clumsy means to assess and adjudicate among “reasons” for an abortion—while that’s just how ordinary Americans tend to think through the issue. Medical expertise comes second to moral evaluations of strangers’ hypothetical situations.

It is difficult for fifty states to agree on policies. This happens because of the conflicting and inherent values around abortion. Americans see abortion as a moral issue that affects core core values. Not all see the law as the rightful place to sort out these kinds of feelings—or don’t know precisely how to authorize it to do so. “I hate to see [abortion] used almost thoughtlessly, but I’m scared to limit its availability because I think it’s too big of a decision for other people to make.”

While most Americans don’t really know much about abortion law or precisely where to draw “the line,” they may find themselves reflecting upon it now, more than ever. However, the politics of abortion today in America suggests that there is limited ability to deepen research or thoughtful discernment about an issue that has been a source of confusion for many generations.

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