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.
As a sociologist and lead researcher on the National Abortion Attitudes Study, 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. Most support it in some cases, but not all. 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. We invited a randomly selected, closely representative set of Americans to tell us in their own words how they felt.
Lucinda, a pseudonym for a 28-year-old Black Christian woman living in the South, paused in contemplation before answering a question we asked her about the morality of abortion. “Mostly, I’m opposed to it. But it also kind of depends. 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. Empathy motivates her support for legal abortion if a woman cannot afford any more children. Or does not want to marry the man involved in the pregnancy. Or is married but does not want 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.”
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, and Lauren are hardly alone in their foggy mix of views on abortion, blurring lines between support and opposition, moral views and legal ones, what could happen and what should happen. A new study on U.S. abortion attitudes from the Pew Research Center echoes what we heard among our interviewees, revealing large shares of Americans opposed to abortion who nonetheless support legality, Americans whose opinions differ by pregnancy timing and circumstance, and a complex picture of abortion thinking overall.
Messiness abounds in Americans’ attitudes on an issue misleadingly portrayed as mutually exclusive.
Our interviewees avidly against abortion simultaneously shared stories about driving a friend to get an abortion, terminating a pregnancy themselves, or walking with women through crowds of protesters to access 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.
The legal lexicon surrounding abortion does not leave much room for the kind of moral grappling Americans do when they think through the issue. 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. Some told us that they felt one way but would respond to a survey (or vote) another.
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. Another three-quarters knew someone personally who had experienced an abortion, whether a friend, family member, or otherwise. Abortion talk raises countless personal stories about pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility, the high cost of childcare, failed relationships, abuse, absent parenthood, and much more.
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 choose instead to stay quiet. Many feel like they are the only ones whose views look like this.
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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