Before talking about abortion, it helps to listen to people’s stories

Before talking about abortion, it helps to listen to people’s stories

(Credit: Pixabay.)

Talking about abortion led to discomfort, arguments, anger, and division. One researcher says that's why it's important to listen.

[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. This is part 2 of the interview. Part 1 can be found here.]

Camosy: We talked in Part I of our Q and A about the good news that people were willing to engage in productive and reflective ways on abortion. But that was because you asked the right questions in the right way. What can we learn from the way you engaged? 

Every interview we conducted for this study was like a magical portal into someone’s world, if only for an hour or two. Unlike the kinds of impersonal surveys we all complete at one time or another, in-person, in-depth interviews are far more intimate and personal – intentionally so.

When and why people will engage hard topics like abortion has a lot to do with the reasons why people typically won’t engage. I recall one interview experience with a 47-year-old Baptist mom of two whom I met at a library on a cool, rainy day. As she prepared to sign the consent form ensuring confidentiality, she told me that she did not want to be judged, or debate, or put into a position where I (the interviewer) would try to convince her to think or believe otherwise. In other words, she was skeptical that I had an agenda and concerned that the interview would be less about listening and more about evaluation, critique, and – inevitably – conflict.

This interviewee’s concerns resonate with what so many people told us during the interviews: That talking about abortion led to discomfort, arguments, anger, and division. Some relayed difficult encounters they’d had with friends or family members when they shared their perspective and felt judged, or heard something that created a rift in the relationship. Much of the silence surrounding abortion isn’t disinterest, but avoidance.

An important reason why our interviewees were willing to talk about a topic that most won’t engage is that we prioritized listening. We came in not as activists or apologists, but as really good listeners. We didn’t hold our breath awaiting the chance to share our own feelings, expose their lack of knowledge, or prove them wrong. We came to hear what that interviewee – that specific, unique person – had to say. We saw each interviewee’s perspective as vital to our quest to learn how Americans understand abortion. We weren’t looking for “right” answers, but real ones. Our verbal affirmations, facial expressions, and tailored follow-up questions assured interviewees that we were listening.

At the end of my interview with the 47-year-old Baptist mom of two, she expressly thanked me for not judging her, but hearing her views in a “welcoming” manner. What can we learn from this about engaging the topic of abortion, together? That people long for spaces where they can let down their guard and be heard. That we can pause our own voice for a bit and give someone else the gift of genuinely listening.

How was the experience for you and others asking the questions? Maybe especially emotionally?

This has been an incredibly meaningful project to me.

I have always loved the way that qualitative interviewing invites more than surface-level small talk. We don’t have enough spaces like that, particularly among those outside our immediate social and political bubbles.

This project grabbles with big questions: What is valuable, how to value it, and how values compete and interact in messy ways. In their own grappling, interviewees shared incredibly personal things. I was trusted as a confidant to hold their secrets. I felt like a stranger both close and far, observing imperfect people trying to navigate the rawness and hardship of humanity.

I’ve processed these interviewees quite a bit, both personally and sociologically. They’ve left me thinking about how Americans are similar and how they’re different, including what differences race, class, religion, and the unpredictability of life can make. As a research team, we relied upon each other to talk through some of the hard stuff we heard and begin to make sense of it all.

This study has left me with a greater appreciation for the stories of strangers. At the start of each interview, I went in knowing nothing about a person other than what they said in an online pre-screener. But I walked away in awe of every interviewee’s unique life and perspectives. I see random people on the street differently now: I know that they, too, have stories to tell, opinions to share, and connections that inform their views. In what seems like caustic polarization (and now, a pandemic) I’m grateful to know that, under the right conditions, we’re still just an hour or so away from meaningful connection across an otherwise anonymous chasm.

Your research as a qualitative sociologist has often focused on the Catholic Church and Catholics in particular. Any insights here?

As someone who has researched and written books about U.S. Catholics, I’ve been intrigued to learn more about what today’s Catholics – generationally, regionally, and racially diverse as they are – have to say about the issue of abortion. Catholic identity is itself a wide umbrella and its levels of practice uneven. Some of the Catholic interviewees in our sample were baptized Catholic and retain the identity but rarely practice, if at all. Others are recent converts or parish volunteers. Some had abortions, themselves.

Given this diversity in identities and behaviors among American Catholics, we found no single “American Catholic opinion” on abortion. We heard more consistency across Evangelical Protestants’ interviewees and religiously unaffiliated interviewees than we did Catholic interviewees.

This again showcases the imperative of listening to “ordinary” Americans rather than just a subset of spokespeople representing a given religion, political party, movement, or otherwise. Not everyone comes with talking points and fully-thought out rationales for their positions. Social science is designed to meet people where they are…which is not always where the leaders of their affiliated groups may be, or where those leaders want ordinary Americans to be.

Especially for Crux readers who want to find indirect or alternative ways to discuss abortion, what “abortion-adjacent” issues did you find that might work best in doing this?

What my research team came to realize is that talk about abortion isn’t just talk about abortion. It’s talk about what happens long before a pregnancy and it’s talk about what happens long after. We heard, for example, ample discussion of things like “responsibility” and “readiness.” What might “responsibility” mean with regard to actions preceding a pregnancy? What does “readiness” to be a parent look like? How does age, consent, intention, and access to or beliefs about pregnancy prevention factor in? How might “responsibility” or “readiness” play out differently for men and women, for the married and unmarried, or for those with differing levels of financial and social support? When either “responsibility” or “readiness” are deemed absent, what do “consequences” or “alternatives” look like (more terms we heard interviewees use)?

Our study’s goal is not to answer these questions, but to show that they are among the questions that Americans use to formulate answers, themselves. Some 71 percent of our interviewees describe themselves as morally opposed to abortion in some or all instances; on legality, 86 percent want abortion legal in some or all instances. Behind these figures are more themes worth exploring collectively, such as the role of government and the law, the process or support network that informs abortion decisions, and the ways that many distinguish between right “for me” versus right “for someone else.” And more.

This leads back to your first question: If we hesitate to talk about abortion, we can start by listening to the multitude of related personal and social questions it raises.

I know you’ve collected so much data that it can’t make into a relatively short report like this. What’s next for this project and for Tricia Bruce?

There’s a book coming! I continue to think through everything we’ve learned from listening to these 217 Americans. I’m writing a book to further the goal shared by the report: building awareness of how ordinary Americans understand abortion … and, along the way, themselves. Conversations that the report generates (including this one!) help immensely in this process. Follow updates on Twitter and my website: www.triciabruce.com.

Beyond that, I know I’ll keep asking hard questions, listening, and learning.

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