New study shows Americans have complicated views on abortion

New study shows Americans have complicated views on abortion

Pro-life advocates participate in a roadside demonstration July 5, 2020, in Stony Brook, N.Y., during the Independence Day holiday weekend. (Credit: Gregory A. Shemitz/CNS.)

A new survey of U.S. opinions on abortion has offered surprising results.

[Editor’s Note: Tricia C. Bruce is a sociologist of religion and an affiliate of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society as well as adjunct research associate professor of sociology with the University of Texas at San Antonio. The author and co-editor of four books, Bruce has received research funding from the National Science Foundation and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. She is an expert in the sociological dimensions of religion, Catholicism, organizations and social change. She spoke to Charles Camosy about a new study on abortion sponsored by Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life,]

Camosy: As implausible as this might sound, is it fair today that your study is really the first one ever that takes a deep dive into the qualitative data about what U.S. Americans think about abortion?

Bruce: You are right; this has been a major gap until now. For all we “know” about Americans’ attitudes toward abortion, the data has been surprisingly thin, or limited to particular groups. Numerous surveys about abortion attitudes (such as those from Gallup and the General Social Survey) provide useful “big picture” data but leave little to no room for explanation, exceptions, limitations, or connections to broader values. Prior interview studies have more gotten into the “why” behind abortion attitudes but only for activists, women who have experienced abortions, abortion providers, or other narrow subsets of Americans.

In short: No one had gathered in-depth, qualitative data from ordinary Americans regarding how they think and feel about abortion. We set out to do exactly that.

This is so great. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen quantitative studies with simplistic questions which of their very nature can’t compare the complex reality of what people believe about this issue. Now, there are going to be some people who–seeing that this study came out Notre Dame – will dismiss it on that basis alone. For those who are more open-minded, can you say something about your methods and your commitment (and that of Notre Dame) to simply get the data?

We are sociologists trained in the methodology of social science to observe empirical realities. Regardless of topic, whom you ask and how you ask matters for what you find. Knowing the importance of getting this right, we worked hard to build a sample of Americans that reflected the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives we see across the U.S. landscape.

After an initial pilot to test our interview questions, we mailed 2,500 letters to a random set of addresses across six locales (California, Colorado, Indiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee). The letter – which contained a $2 bill to incentivize responses – did not disclose abortion as the topic. Recipients were asked to fill out a short set of questions online: Their age, race, sex, education, marital status, number of children, religion, religious service attendance, political party, and ideology (from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative”). A final question revealed abortion as the topic, confirming respondents’ willingness to participate in a full interview.

Tricia C. Bruce. (Credit: Courtesy to Crux.)

From the long list of responses that this online form generated, we reached out to a sample of Americans whose collective characteristics closely approximated that of the U.S. overall, prioritizing those characteristics known to influence abortion attitudes. At the point of selection, we knew nothing about how each person felt about abortion legally or morally. We supplemented recruitment with snowball sampling where needed to balance our sample.

Our interviews lasted an average of 75 minutes, most taking place face-to-face in settings like public libraries. We got to know each person – their day-to-day routines, their personalities, their core values – before asking what first came to mind upon hearing the word “abortion.” We asked them about early memories hearing about abortion as well as connections to family, friends, children, religion, politics, and more. Our interviews also replicated several survey-style questions, but with the space to challenge response categories, offer explanations, and come up with original answers. We gave each interviewee $30 in thanks for their time and participation.

Done well, confidential in-depth qualitative interviews are an avenue to honesty, depth, and complex thinking. As interviewers, we listened; we did not judge or attempt to persuade. The diversity of opinions we heard was vast. We are grateful to all those who participated, and seek to honor their contributions through our report and subsequent publications that may enhance our collective understanding of how ordinary Americans think about abortion.

One of the major take-aways of the study, it seems to me, is that large numbers of people haven’t thought about abortion that carefully and have views that are somewhat in flux or difficult to pin down. Is that fair to say?

We were amazed by the number of times people told us that they’d never had a conversation regarding their opinions on abortion. This is not to say that abortion isn’t an area of awareness or personal and interpersonal experience: Americans see it in the news, hear about legal debates, and frequently know someone who has had an abortion. But most still don’t really talk much about it. Many fear that a conversation will incite conflict, or create tension among friends and family who hold opposing views. People avoid it, rarely going beyond labels like “pro-life” or “pro-choice” to learn more about what someone else thinks.

We also heard a lot of Americans hedge, change their minds, or admit that the way they vote is not the way they actually feel. Many held views for themselves that they did not want to impose on someone else. Some discovered themselves less certain about where they stand than they realized.

Our interviews, in other words, reveal Americans to be far less stagnant, stringent, absolutist, and certain about their views toward abortion than what survey statistics might lead us to believe.

Another major take-away seems that the pro-life, pro-choice binary is not adequate as a moral vision for how people think about abortion.

Labels are tricky things. Early in our report, we introduce four interviewees whose moral and legal views on abortion are similar, but whose chosen labels are across the board: “pro-choice,” “pro-life,” “I’m both! I’m both!” “neither,” and “pro-mother’s choice” among them. Many Americans resist labels entirely because they inadequately capture how they feel, or imply opposition to values that they in fact support.

Labels like “pro-choice” and “pro-life” also divide Americans neatly into two camps, but this is not what we heard in interviews. While labels can be useful for mobilizing people and advocating policy agendas, they are far less adequate to describe how ordinary Americans think and feel about abortion. Labels are also – in the opinions of many Americans – hypocritical and untrue. More often than not, abortion attitude labels inhibit our ability to talk to one another.

Did you find any appreciable differences between the views of those who are more privileged and those who are less privileged in the U.S.?

We know that Americans’ vantage points are meaningfully shaped by access to resources along with felt control over positive outcomes for oneself and one’s loved ones. This theme emerged in our interviews especially during talk of “readiness” for parenthood. For many Americans, being “ready” to be a parent requires financial stability.

We listened to interviewees talk about the financial hardships of having and raising children today, particularly in situations where the parents are young and pregnancies unexpected. We heard about the high cost of abortion, healthcare, and childcare, as well as uncertainty as to whether fathers would provide child support. Some interviewees shared personal abortion decisions influenced by concerns that having a child would make it impossible to complete college or move toward long-term career and financial goals. Some lamented the lack of parental leave following the birth of a child or absence of social support throughout life, putting parents in financially precarious situations.

At the same time, Americans distinguished between financial decisions and parenting ones. For example, when we asked whether it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children, more than four in ten interviewees said “no,” many commenting that poverty is not a “good” reason to seek an abortion. A number of interviewees living in low income neighborhoods, themselves, spoke of pregnancy and children in a more positive light than abortion, even when their own experiences included abortions.

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