Americans in Agreement: Abortion is Not a ‘Desirable Good’

A group of sociologists asked open-ended questions in interviews lasting an average of 75 minutes, mostly in-person, to elicit personal responses on the issue from Americans.

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WASHINGTON — A new abortion study has revealed the complexity of Americans’ views on abortion, and an openness to discussion. But among the report’s key findings was a unanimous agreement that abortion is not a “desirable good.”

The interview study “How Americans Understand Abortion” was published on Monday by the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life. Rather than ask respondents fixed-answer questions about their views on abortion, sociologists interviewed Americans at length to elicit thoughtful answers on the morality and legality of abortion.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Charles Camosy, a theology professor at Fordham University, told CNA that one of the study’s most important findings was a willingness among Americans to “engage” on the issue.

“People are willing to engage. They want more information,” Camosy said of the study. “So if we can do it the right way, I think there’s a lot of hope for that type of engagement.”

Acknowledging abortion as “among the loudest and most contentious subjects” in current-day politics and culture, the Notre Dame report nevertheless adds that it “is a subject that people acknowledge but generally avoid,” one that is “polarized, stigmatized, shamed, hidden,” and “deeply personal” for many people.

Nuance in abortion opinion has long been aknowledged, but little explored. In the 2018 General Social Survey (GSS), nearly half (44%) of respondents replied “it depends” to a question on whether or not they were morally opposed to abortion. The Notre Dame study aimed to lay out the complexity of Americans’ views on abortion such as the vague answer to the 2018 GSS question.

A group of sociologists asked open-ended questions in interviews lasting an average of 75 minutes, mostly in-person, to elicit personal responses on the issue from Americans. Respondents were not informed ahead of time that the conversation would focus on abortion.

Overall, the sociologists interviewed 217 people in six U.S. states— California, Colorado, Indiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee—from March to August, 2019.

Camosy said that the study is important because it captures information that normal polls do not, namely, the complexity—and at times discordance—of people’s views on abortion.

“As a pro-lifer, if we dive into that complexity, I think we’ll find way more people actually are very sympathetic to political and policy goals that we have, than we would find if we just asked them a poll question,” he told CNA.

One concrete finding of the study was that, although they may be conflicted about the issue, ultimately “Americans don’t ‘want’ abortion.”

“None of the Americans we interviewed talked about abortion as a desirable good,” the study said. “Americans do not uphold abortion as a happy event or something they want more of.”

This finding appears to illustrate a failure of the social media campaign #ShoutYourAbortion, begun in 2015, in which pro-abortion advocates encouraged women to relate their own experiences of abortion positively and without “sadness, shame, or regret.” The campaign received public support from Planned Parenthood executive vice president Dawn Laguens.

Another conclusion of the study was that many Americans have not “talked about abortion in depth,” whether out of a fear of conflict or because they think they do not possess the “scientific, legal, and moral lexicons to reason through difficult topics.”

Many respondents also gave an initial answer of their beliefs, only to clarify “that that’s not really how they feel.” Responses such as this one are not measured well by normal fixed-question surveys, the study said.

“People really don’t know what they think about the issue,” Camosy said of the responses in the report. “To the extent that they think about the issue at all,” he said, their beliefs may be “superficial,” or “connected to personal experiences” instead of the fruit of “systematic” or “careful” thinking.

“As a professor, I tend to think so differently than the average person who’s got a million other things on their mind,” he said. Most people “have no tools, no capacity” to think through the issue carefully, he said.

For Catholics who follow Church teaching on the sanctity of life, this may pose an obstacle to evangelization.

However, Camosy said, pro-lifers can start by pointing to “adjacent issues,” the circumstances in which a young mother might consider abortion such as domestic violence, poverty, and racial injustice. They can “help people feel their way through these issues,” before discussing why it is bad that these pregnancies end in abortion.

The study also revealed that many people talk about the concept of a “good life” just as much as they do life itself, with a “good life” possibly encompassing matters of “health, support, financial stability, affection, rights, and pursuit of chosen livelihoods.”

Furthermore, the more “permissive” respondents were to abortion, the more they prioritized a “good life.”

“Choosing a ‘good life’ becomes, for some, a good enough reason to have an abortion,” the report said.

Finally, given the complexity of answers on abortion, the study recommended moving away from the binary labeling of Americans as either “pro-choice” or “pro-life.”

For instance, one interviewee identified as “pro-choice” before clarifying that “I’m both! I’m both!” After that, the interviewee said she identified as “neither” and “pro-mother’s choice.

“This study reveals that just not to be the case at all,” Camosy said, of the narrative that two sides are bitterly at war on the abortion issue.

Of those surveyed, 35% said that abortion should be “legal under any circumstance.”

Many in this group are religiously-unaffiliated, and these respondents were more likely to be college-educated, majority-Democrat, trended younger, and were more likely to have had an abortion or known someone who has had an abortion, the report said. Around half of this group were not morally opposed to abortion, while the other half were either ambivalent or were morally opposed.

Meanwhile, 14% of respondents said abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances.” Nearly all of these were also morally opposed to abortion, all were church-attending Catholics or Protestants, majority-Republican, and “disproportionately male and non-Hispanic white.” Half of them had a college degree, and a majority were of the older Boomer or Silent generations.