Surveys of American Public Culture

Preface: Understanding the Controversy Over Abortion

James Davison Hunter and Carl Desportes Bowman

The Abortion Deadlock

Seventeen years have passed since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and while the abortion debate has fluctuated in intensity during this period, it has never shown any signs of abating. If anything, the debate is more deeply entrenched now than it has ever been. This is seen in the heightened rhetorical passion and human emotion poured into the issue—by activists and ordinary citizens alike. It is also seen in the growing number of resources invested by both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice organizations into strategies of political mobilization. With every “rescue,” with every NOW pronouncement, with every election campaign, and with every Pro-Life activist imprisoned, we see greater and greater resolve on the part of both sides of this debate to achieve their ends. After seventeen years of controversy, the conflict over abortion seems deadlocked in a cycle of advantage and counter-advantage.

The Supreme Court’s 1989 Webster decision and its aftermath provide the most recent case in point. Ironically, the net effect of the decision was the opposite of the one anticipated. Rather than cast it into disarray, the Pro-Choice movement was galvanized into action: Pro-Choice organizations mobilized new grass-roots and celebrity support, increased its number and level of contributions, and garnered widespread sympathetic press coverage. What is more, it has been very effective in portraying the Pro-Life movement on a whole as extremist, interventionist, and anti-women. Their success has been due, in part, to the high visibility of Operation Rescue and the “demonizing” of its leader, Randall Terry. It has also been due, in part, to the selective inattention by the media establishment to the more responsible and conciliatory advocates of the Pro-Life position.

Though the Pro-Life movement failed to anticipate this reaction, nevertheless it continued to mobilize popular opinion in local and regional settings around the country and to generate resources of its own. Buoyed by the Supreme Court decisions of 1990 backing parental notification laws in Ohio and Minnesota, the Pro-Life movement has pressed ahead, many expressing confidence that it is only a matter of time before Roe v. Wade is overturned.

The Legal Deadlock

Whether or not Roe v. Wade is overturned, the Webster decision has ensured that state legislatures, federal courts, and ultimately the Supreme Court will be locked in an almost endless number of legal battles for many years to come. Under what conditions will abortion be acceptable? What will be the penalty given to those who perform them illegally? Besides the mother, who else will have a legal right to be a part of the decision? As each state legislature debates these matters and as each federal judge decides on their constitutionality, there will be intense political pressures. In not many years we may wonder whether there has been any other issue in the history of American jurisprudence in which the issue of justice has been more politicized?

Yet even if the legal deadlock is broken and established legal opinion and practice begins to favor the Pro-Life ideal, there will continue to be a moral deadlock over the abortion issue. It is the moral deadlock over abortion that places ever increasing strains upon American democratic practice. Therefore, it will not be enough just to change the law. The moral deadlock over this issue must also be broken. Effective strategy, then, will not only seek to influence law but to change the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere as well.

The Opinion Deadlock

To speak of a moral deadlock over the abortion issue is to speak of the opposition of fundamental beliefs, convictions, and values. The problem is that we know far less than we should about the mélange of perspectives that make up the abortion controversy.

The Problem of Survey Research

Survey research has itself contributed to the problem. For one, the cost of surveys is very high, all things considered, and thus the ability of an independent scholar, a newspaper or a television network, or an advocacy group to pay for any more than a few questions is not great. The consequences of this are that the few questions that are posed to the general public are generally designed to elicit sharp contrasts at the extremes rather than shade and nuance in the middle. Another consequence of this is that attitudes about abortion are generally explored in isolation—as though other issues that engage people’s minds and commitments were completely unrelated to it.

Another problem is found in the ways survey research is used. Though originally intended as a tool of social scientific analysis and interpretation, the method has come to take on a life of its own. Practically, this means that most survey research does not proceed as part of a larger conversation with political and social theory. This has been true for much of the work on abortion as well. This only adds to the superficiality of our knowledge of the topic.

On top of this, survey research has come to be used as an ideological weapon by both sides of the controversy, each side claiming that the majority of Americans supports their position. This matter is only complicated further by the fact that some pollsters themselves have come to ignore the canons of professional objectivity by taking sides in the debate.

Thus, past efforts to utilize the tools of public opinion research on the abortion controversy has brought us at best, a mixture of insight and ignorance.

What We Know and Don’t Know

Despite these foibles, there are some things about the public’s view of abortion that we do know.

First, we know something about the general distribution of attitudes about abortion. We know, for example, that anywhere between fifteen and twenty-five percent of the population is unambiguously and unshakably Pro-Life in their commitments and roughly the same percent (if not slightly less) are equally committed to the Pro-Choice position. This polarity has remained fairly consistent since the early 1970s.

Between the two ideologically polarized extremes is the majority of America’s population—anywhere between 50 and sixty percent—whose views on the issue are difficult to characterize. Many of them believe, for example, that abortion is murder but they also believe that the pregnant woman should have the choice over whether to abort or not. (The implication, as nearly everyone points out, is that the plurality of Americans believe that mother has the right to murder her unborn child!) Most of these individuals also claim to live according to a Judeo-Christian set of values and commitments but religious affiliation does not seem to have any influence upon their views of abortion at all.

This leads us to a piece of wisdom deriving from previous public opinion surveys, namely, that the traditional categories of analysis do not help very much in explaining the distribution that we see.

Religious affiliation is just a case in point. Whether a person is Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish seems to have no bearing upon their views of abortion. “Social class” is another case. Whether a person is rich or poor or middle class does not help us predict what a person’s views are going to be. The same is true for age, gender, race, and marital status. It is true that the respondent’s education is a fairly good predictor of attitudes as is the region of the country the person lives in. (The better educated tend to hold more favorable attitudes toward abortion as do people who live in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific states.) A person’s religiosity is also a somewhat useful predictor of opinions. (The more observant the person is, the more likely they will believe in protecting the life of the unborn.) These general findings are interesting and suggestive but they still leave us wanting to know much more.

At the end of the day, we do not know enough about the nature and range of attitudes on abortion, nor do we have an adequate grip on why people hold them. Who are these people at the extremes and in the middle? What systems of moral reasoning do they rely upon in coming to their opinion? Are the contradictions in attitudes due to competing moral appeals—e.g. the obligation to stand up for the helpless and the obligation to respect the moral autonomy of others? If so, which appeals, which sets of obligations, which values have the greater priority?

Toward a Deeper Understanding

In light of recent developments on the one hand and the intractable nature of the abortion debate as a whole, it is clear that we need to better understand the underlying currents of American society and culture that contribute to the continuation of the status quo. The Life Choices Survey summarized in this report is an effort in that direction. It holds the promise of telling us more about the polarizations and contradictions that seem to characterize American public opinion on the matter. The following summary, however, is only a start. A more technically precise understanding of these findings as well as the task of mining these data for still other rich discoveries awaits and will reward others.

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The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture is an interdisciplinary research center and intellectual community at the University of Virginia committed to understanding contemporary cultural change and its individual and social consequences, training young scholars, and providing intellectual leadership in service to the public good.

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