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. Voting results out of Kansas suggest that outcomes may defy expectations and evoke gradation far beyond that of a typical partisan issue.
Prompted by polling that consistently shows ambivalence among the American public (legal support for abortion some but not all of the time), my team of sociologists interviewed hundreds in 2019 to better understand how ordinary Americans think through this issue.
Despite public rhetoric otherwise, questions about preferences regarding abortion access and regulation are hard to answer for many Americans. 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.
We learned that there are some conditions that generate fairly widespread levels 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”). Polling by the Pew Research Center indicates that nearly three quarters of all Americans support legal abortion in such a circumstance, though it’s clinicians who must navigate what qualifies. 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. Responses touch upon the inherent dignity and value of life, meaning of disability, dependency, and quality of life for both an impacted child and caregiver. 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.”
And it only gets more convoluted from there.
Our Republican interviewees were less likely than others to say that rape warrants legal access to abortion, echoing national polling that shows the same. 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.”
Many of our Democrat interviewees paired their inclination toward legality with misgivings about abortions that occur late in a pregnancy for reasons unrelated to health. “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. This includes half of Democrats, a majority of whom do not favor legal abortion past 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Interviewees alluded to emotional ties developed through their own pregnancies and reacted with visceral disdain 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.
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.
What makes it so difficult to negotiate fifty state policies, in other words, is the inherent overlap and clash of values surrounding abortion. Most Americans treat abortion as a moral issue touching upon visceral, if underexplored, 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. The politics of abortion in America today, however, suggests limited capacity for deep research and thoughtful discernment on an issue that has flummoxed the nation for generations.
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