Bottom Line Up Front: The “pro-life” and “pro-choice” labels are unnecessarily divisive and don’t accurately reflect most American’s beliefs about abortions.
As I mentioned in the first post, an outsider looking in might be forgiven for assuming that in America a person must choose between hating women or hating babies. The reality, however, is much more complex. While it’s true that if Americans are forced to choose between all-or-nothing options and identify either as pro-life or pro-choice, we’re pretty much in a dead heat at 48 percent each, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. Other polls that word the question slightly differently come out with slightly different yet generally consistent results.
However, when Americans are presented with more nuanced options, the opinion landscape begins to shift rather dramatically. For example, when asked whether abortion should be permitted under specific circumstances, a total of 79 percent of respondents said yes (29 percent said “always” and “50” percent said sometimes) while only 18 percent said abortion should always be illegal.
American’s opinions regarding abortion are, in fact, largely circumstance dependent. 60 percent of Americans say the believe abortions in the first trimester should be legal while 34 percent believe they should be illegal. Those percentages reversed for abortions in the second trimester, with only 28 percent favoring legality and 65 percent favoring illegality. 81 percent of Americans believe abortions in the third trimester should be illegal, except when the mother’s life is in danger or the child would be born with a life-threatening illness, circumstances for which 75 and 49 percent of people respectively believe abortions should be legal.
To complicate matters even further, when asked to consider the morality of abortion apart from legality, 48 percent believe abortion is immoral, 43 percent believe it is moral, and seven percent think it varies based on the situation. This means that a significant percentage of Americans believe that while abortion is always immoral, it should not always be illegal. I should note that while I don’t have any data for this, I’ve found in discussions with my “pro-choice” friends that many people who believe that abortion is morally acceptable don’t believe that it is morally good. They remind me that their goal truly is “safe, legal, and rare” and that they really do want to see the overall number of abortions reduced and even see abortion become obsolete. One thing seems obvious from this brief survey of the data: Very few Americans see abortion as a black-and-white issue. A large majority of us see lots of complicated shades of gray. This is one reason I find the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” labels to be so unhelpful; they force us to choose between a false dichotomy that most of us don’t believe exists. A closer look at the data really does seem to indicate that there is more agreement than the usual framing of the issue would have us believe.
As Lisa Cahill states in her book Theological Bioethics, “Rather than building bridges to those of different convictions,” the overwhelming majority of the public discourse instead “widen[s] divisions, while reinforcing group bonds and goals.” In other words, we’ve hunkered down in our respective camps and just seem to be shouting louder and louder past one another, thereby reinforcing the division and solidifying our opposition to “the other side.”
I want to believe that we can do better. I want to believe that it’s possible to start with what the data says we do agree on and work toward solutions and policies that both reduce abortion and take seriously the already complex realities of pregnancy, gender inequality, and commoditization of women’s bodies that women must navigate. I’ll discuss those solutions and policies in a later post. But first, given that the staunchest opponents of abortion cite their religious beliefs as the basis for their position, in the next few posts we’re going to see if the religious position really is as black and white as we’ve been told.