Groundbreaking National Study Shows That Americans Struggle to Think Coherently About Abortion

Abortion has haunted American politics for nearly a half-century. Ever since an all-male Supreme Court short-circuited the legislative process and ruled that access to abortion is a constitutional right guaranteed under the 14th amendment, abortion has contributed to the realignment of political parties and the American electorate. There is no shortage of polling data and survey results from organizations such as Pew, Gallup, and Marist, that make clear the deep and painful divisions among Americans on the issue of abortion. For example, the most recent data from Gallup reports that 48% of Americans identify as pro-choice and 46% as pro-life, while the Marist poll tells us that in January 2020, 55% of Americans considered themselves pro-choice, 40% pro-life, and 5% were unsure.

Survey data is useful inasmuch as it takes the pulse of the country; however, statistical analysis comes with its own set of limitations, including the tendency to misrepresent the way in which abortion is operative as a live issue for Americans. Swimming in a sea of the ever ebbing and flowing tides of polls, tabulating opinions for anything and everything, can have the effect of making abortion appear to be just one key issue among others, such as the economy, immigration, or global warming. This can lead us, mistakenly, to assume that people think about abortion in the same way as they think about many other issues. Statistical analysis, when used in isolation from more qualitative forms of investigation, has the tendency to obscure how everyday Americans think about abortion, by simply telling us what they think.

Statistical analysis obfuscates the complicated and sometimes contradictory conceptual and experiential frameworks Americans enlist in order to arrive at and articulate their views. That is to say, the polls cannot tell us what people mean when they identify as “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” Indeed, it is not at all evident that the glut of statistical data on abortion has assisted us in understanding or assessing the subterranean currents of thought and feeling that inform American views about abortion.

Only qualitative, that is, interview-based studies, such as the landmark study, How Americans Understand Abortion, which was recently released by my employer, the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, can unearth these complex layers. There has never been a nationally representative qualitative study of the views of everyday Americans on abortion. This study, conducted by sociologist Tricia Bruce, is the first of its kind to listen to how ordinary Americans think and speak about abortion.[1]  

It is, for that reason, critical for everyone who has a stake in reducing and eliminating abortion, but also anyone wanting to understand how people think about abortion. Dr. Bruce and a team of five researchers spent five months sitting at coffee shops and libraries, in livings rooms and around kitchen tables listening to over 200 Americans “talk about what they think a feel regarding abortion.” For many, this was the first time they had spoken at any length. The researchers’ goal was not to calculate the percentage of Americans who identify as pro-life or pro-choice, but rather to probe what these identifiers mean to ordinary Americans.

Unfortunately, traditional polls neither capture the sometimes complex reasoning that lies behind survey answers, nor help Americans understand one another in meaningful ways. Indeed, Dr. Bruce points out that as data for social science, while surveys are “informative and nationally representative,” and can suggest underlying complexities, they are by their very nature limited because they “presume a common understanding of words like, ‘morality’ or ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice.’”

Furthermore, beyond the ambiguity of language, fixed-choice surveys cannot “probe the reasons or potential complexities behind views on abortion.” Nor can they illuminate the intellectual and experiential resources Americans draw on to make judgments about abortion or how Americans fit (or do not fit) these pieces together. There is no substitute, it turns out, for actually listening to people if we hope the map the uneven terrains of thought around abortion.

This study proposed to do just that, and the findings are as instructive as they are complex. Notably, for many being interviewed it was their first time talking about abortion at significant length. Bruce observes that “unlike the news and social media, conversations about abortion are infrequent or non-existent for most Americans.” It is often strategically avoided because it is considered too contentious an issue to discuss. Thus, while there is no shortage of exposure to speech on abortion through news and social media, still, many Americans rarely speak about it.

Yet, those interviewed welcomed the opportunity to reflect on the issue of abortion, saying things like, “I’ll probably be thinking about this for a long time.” Others called interviewers afterward to make clarifications, and some even reached out to thank them for opening a space for such conversations. That Americans find it difficult to broach the issue of abortion with friends, peers, and family members belies a desire to think more carefully and intentionally about this issue.

Among their findings, researchers also noted widespread ignorance and unease with abortion. Many lack the scientific, legal, and moral tools to think coherently about abortion. As Bruce notes, “Unlike activists well-versed in the science and legality of abortion, everyday Americans hold an uneven knowledge of biology, sexual behavior, pregnancy, gestational development, abortion, [and] abortion laws.” Indeed, Americans are often ignorant of the basic science of fetal development, what is entailed in an abortion, as well as the laws governing abortions, and many lack the moral framework and language to understand, assess, and even to articulate questions related to abortion.

One interviewee confessed, “Honestly, I don’t even know when a baby has a heartbeat.” Another said simply, “I’m not sure when life begins.” A third explained, “I don’t know enough about the development of a human fetus to say really when it would know what was going on. I don’t even think that the brain is fully formed and forming strong memories or perceptions of things until well after a person is born.”[2]

For some interviewees, the lack of knowledge about embryology and fetal development is used to justify permissive positions on abortion. For instance, one interviewee explaining his reason for not morally opposing abortion said, “it’s your body—do what you will with it, as long as it does not harmfully impact another human being,” but when asked if abortion harms a human being, he offered a response: “I would argue that it’s not entirely a human being . . . I understand that it is not like a magic day—the next day it’s a human being. It’s a process. But I do not know enough about any of it, scientifically, to really have a strong opinion on it.” Another person—confusing conception with viability—explained, “Life doesn’t begin at conception, I don’t believe. Because it can’t sustain life. Not until it can sustain life—in being born—can it live on its own.”

Setting aside for the moment some of the more problematic elements of such reasoning, it nevertheless indicates two important things. First, many Americans do not have an adequate understanding of the basic biology of fetal development. Second, this lack of knowledge is not inconsequential for moral reasoning, as we see when errant understandings of biological processes, such as when life begins, or how an unborn child develops in the womb, or the difference between viability and conception, inform permissive attitudes toward abortion. Americans generally seem to struggle to reason well about abortion.

In general, Dr. Bruce, notes that Americans struggle to reason clearly about ethical issues at stake in abortion, revealing that most “have not given careful thought to abortion, beyond how labels, politics, and media frame public conversations about it. This lack of careful thought means that “Americans also find themselves bereft of scientific, legal, and moral lexicons to reason through difficult topics.” Indeed, interviewees often invoke problematic moral arguments.

For instance, one interviewee, who identified herself as pro-life explained her opposition to abortion in personal terms saying, “is not something that I could ever see myself doing.” She opposes abortion because she would never have one. Surely, her reasoning involves more than mere personal preference, but the interviewees often struggled to cogently articulate just what this “more” might include.

Those who consider themselves pro-choice are equally prone to problematic modes of reasoning. These include the tendency to invoke rather thin conceptions of autonomy, or to insist that all “moral decisions are ‘situational’ or ‘circumstantial’ or that they don’t have the experience and knowledge to adjudicate between them.” For those who identify as pro-choice, their lack of knowledge tends to justify their permissiveness.

Scientific and philosophical ignorance about abortion also bleeds into issues concerning its legality. Dr. Bruce reports that while older participants recall the landmark 1972 Roe v. Wade decision, a substantial minority has never heard of it, and few can articulate its content beyond its legalization of abortion. Furthermore, many Americans not only lack the moral language, but also the philosophical framework, to think coherently about abortion.

Yet, even as they vacillate, waiver, and equivocate in a struggle to articulate moral principles, most people, including those who identify as pro-choice, understand abortion to be a morally significant decision. Again, the study’s results suggest that most Americans think a moral case needs to be made (for or against) but are unable to offer one consistently.

Apart from scientific, philosophical, and legal/historical ignorance, it is also clear that Americans, even pro-choice Americans, do not “want” abortion—they at best concede it as a necessary evil. Contrary to the trumpeting of abortion rights advocates, the majority of Americans do not think of abortion as an intrinsic social good; rather, even many of those who identified as “pro-choice” view abortion with deep ambivalence.

Most of them believe there should be limits on abortion, precisely those limits which abortion advocates fight tooth and nail against. These limits include but are not limited to: waiting periods, informed consent, parental consent, and gestational limits. Indeed, the study’s sample, reflective of national surveys, found that 75% of interview participants believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances or illegal except under certain circumstances.

Interviewees who disclosed personal experience with abortion often described it less in terms of a “liberating decision” and more in terms of an “unchoice.” These women described feeling encumbered from any number of factors, including economic and interpersonal pressure. One woman recalled:

When I had my own experience with [abortion], there was a counselor there that night. And she asked me, and this is really sad, but this is—they’re counselors, and it’s what they do. She asked me how I felt about what was going on. And I said, “Well, I believe that life begins in the hand of God, and I don’t believe that this is the right thing to do. I just don’t know what else to do.” The father had insisted on it, and he was the police chief at the time. So, he was very high profile in a very small town. And that those two things just don’t match well. And I said, “I really don’t know what else to do.”

A decision made under such conditions cannot be read as an authentic instance of a free choice; it is a capitulation to coercion. In fact, what abortion rights advocates laud as empowerment is, in many, instances the exact opposite—women are pressured into abortion by boyfriends, lovers, husbands, and family members.

Given Americans’ limited knowledge about abortion and their relative unease discussing it in the context of daily life, it is little wonder that this study shows that even such labels as “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” while instructive in one regard, can be misleading in other ways. This is because they do not tell the whole story and often oversimplify a person’s positions, leading those in the pro-life movement to underestimating, perhaps, how much, and what kind of, work we need to do for our educational efforts to be successful when addressing either group or anyone in between. Even people who consider themselves “pro-life” often lack the knowledge to explain their positions to others and even to themselves.

This groundbreaking study is invaluable for anyone committed to better understanding how Americans think about abortion however, it is particularly important for those promoting an authentic culture of life. Unlike closed-ended surveys, Dr. Bruce and her team elucidate how Americans think through questions related to abortion and illuminate the need for new forms of education and formation. Indeed, the “How Americans Understand Abortion” study shows that, contrary to the rhetoric of abortion rights which would have us believe that abortion is no different from any other medical procedure,[3] in fact, Americans intuit that abortion is a morally weighted issue and they know they struggle to make sense of their own feelings about it.

The vulnerability and honesty that we witness in these conversations occurring on front porches and back patios suggest that Americans are both deeply aware of the moral stakes of abortion and reject the extreme abortion permissiveness that currently characterizes American abortion jurisprudence and the politics of abortion rights.

Simultaneously, the study shows not only a need but a desire for creative educational initiatives on this issue. Although Americans are largely ignorant about abortion, they nevertheless demonstrate an eagerness and openness to conversation. Such educational initiatives need to operate on multiple levels, addressing both the basic information gaps that characterize the ordinary American’s understanding of abortion, and also building up the conceptual reasoning skills needed to morally weigh and evaluate it.

Abortion haunts American politics because it haunts Americans. For the first time, we have a study that can help us to understand the complex labyrinth of how Americans think about abortion. We should not forget that the stakes are high. Rather than raising alarm, this study presents the pro-life movement a tremendous opportunity. It reveals that the abortion extremism, which has led the United States to have some of the most permissive abortion laws in the world, is out of step with average Americans.

Moreover, it shows us that in general Americans, wherever they land on the “spectrum of attitudes” do not want more abortion. It is quite the opposite, Americans support limits on abortion and meaningful policies that support women and children. This is all good news for the protection of mothers and babies.

But we also find that the general public is often ill-informed, and thus the opportunity to develop strategic and creative educational initiatives—such as the ones I developed at the Notre Dame Office of Life and Human Dignity—which do not simply repeat tactics of days past but actually help Americans re-learn the dignity of life. We are presented here with nothing less than the opportunity to shape the way people think about abortion. They want to talk about it. Let’s help them.

[1] Bruce notes that most qualitative, interview-based studies, generally focus on three distinct groups: (1) activists in abortion-related social movements, (2) women who have experienced an abortion or professionals in abortion-related fields, and (3) religious groups. Few, if any, studies have invited everyday Americans to reflect on the issue of abortion.

[2] This is both true and false. Scientists believe a person’s brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. However, the more casual sense in which this interviewee invokes brain development, it is false. While a child’s brain continues to rapidly develop throughout the first years of life and beyond, a newborn does have a fully formed brain, and has already begun perceiving things in utero.

[3] Ironically, since at the same time abortion advocates fight to prevent it from being regulated according to the same standards of care required for other medical procedures.

Featured Image: Photo by Jean-Claude Lorenzelli, Igor Mitoraj statue in Parc du Musée Olympique, 2007; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0


Jessica Keating

Jessica Keating is the director of the Notre Dame Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives, where she engages in scholarship that strives to recover the concept of human dignity for the theological and philosophical imagination.

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