When news got out this week that the US Supreme Court are poised to overturn Roe v Wade – the landmark 1973 case that established the right of pregnant people in the US to have an abortion – the reaction was swift and passionate. Within hours, protests had erupted outside the Supreme Court building, with anti- and pro-abortion rights demonstrators facing off until past midnight.
For many onlookers, these scenes probably aren’t surprising: abortion has long been a cornerstone in the US culture wars. But is the choice to end an unwanted or non-viable pregnancy really as controversial as we’re told?
A recent paper, published in the journal Political Psychology, reminds us that the truth is far less black and white: “Most people in the US support abortion rights,” explained Robbie Sutton, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent, UK, and co-author of the paper.
“A striking feature of the leaked Supreme Court judgement is that it deliberately and explicitly ignores public opinion,” he told IFLScience.
Now, with Roe v Wade seemingly on its last legs and more than half of US states either moving to or having already set up outright abortion bans immediately afterwards, we’ve got to ask – what gives?
Most Americans are in favor of abortion access – and support is increasing
Despite the slew of anti-abortion – and notably anti-scientific – laws that have been signed into effect in various US states recently, the paper points out that the US public is firmly in the opposite camp.
In fact, they always have been. Even in 1978, just five years after Roe was passed, the General Social Survey (GSS) recorded that up to 90 percent of Americans supported access to legal abortions in certain circumstances, and one in three supported the right to get an abortion when “the woman wants it for any reason.”
And today, support for abortion rights is only stronger. The latest GSS reported that a majority of respondents now support the freedom to end a pregnancy “for any reason,” the paper notes, and surveys have consistently found around three-fifths of Americans support keeping abortion legal in all or most cases.
“The extreme position of many [anti-abortion] politicians and activists in the US tends to favour a blanket ban on all abortions. However most people are more in favour of so-called 'traumatic' abortion which is necessary to prevent loss of life for the mother, than so-called 'elective' abortion which women choose for economic, social, or personal reasons,” Sutton told IFLScience.
“However, the distinction is problematic, because very often women may confront situations in which they really cannot afford to lose a child, or may be trapped in abusive relationships, and so on – so the degree to which abortions are truly 'elective' is open to question. For the most part, support for elective and traumatic abortions are strongly correlated – people who favour right to have one type of abortion tend to favour the right to have the other.”
This positive and nuanced picture may seem at odds with what we’re presented by politicians and media – and there are quite a few reasons why that is, former broadcast news producer Julia Moser told IFLScience.
“Especially in broadcast news, too often the emphasis is just on getting the show on the air regardless of the content of the guest’s point of view,” she explained. “So if your boss tells you to book an anti-abortion guest, and you’ve just seen a pitch for one in your inbox, most people are far more likely to just book that guest no matter how extreme their position is [rather] than taking the time to research someone with less extreme views because they simply don’t have the time or resources to find someone better.”
“And to put it bluntly, too many TV news executives would prefer a 'good talker' with extreme views to a more moderate guest with less charisma,” she added.
In the abortion debate, it’s this that separates the US from much of the rest of the world – not the frequency at which abortions are obtained or people’s views on the procedure, but how it’s presented.
“Levels of support [for abortion rights] are lower than in most other Western countries,” Sutton told IFLScience. “But what really makes America stand out is the degree to which abortion is a polarizing issue that is so prominent and formative in party politics.”
Who really opposes abortion?
Ever since white supremacists started leveraging Evangelical Christian voters as a reaction against desegregation, support for abortion access has largely fallen around increasingly partisan lines: if you self-identify as a Republican, then chances are you oppose abortion; if you’re a Democrat, you likely support the right to choose. But past that, things can get more complex.
“Religious belief is a major predictor, especially in the Christian and Muslim traditions,” Sutton told IFLScience – though all religious groups expressed support for traumatic abortions by at least a factor of four to one. On top of that, many religious respondents, especially Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists, support abortion rights in all circumstances, the review found.
“Education also correlates with pro-choice positions,” Sutton noted, with each additional degree of education increasing the likelihood of being pro-choice by more than 150 percent. And there are a few quirks of political affiliation: “We are finding that libertarianism in the US – an avowed commitment to freedom of individual choice – does not translate to support for abortion,” he told IFLScience.
“By and large libertarians oppose abortion rights for women in the US,” Sutton said.
But when the researchers looked at perhaps the most stereotypical predicting factor – sexism – they found the picture to be more complicated than you might expect.
“Sexism has two core components: hostile sexism, which broadly equates with misogyny, and represents women as seeking through feminism and exploitation of their sexuality to usurp men's dominant position; and benevolent sexism, which represents women in positive, warm terms as worthy of adoration and protection by men, and as more moral and refined than men,” Sutton told IFLScience.
“In our work, reviewed in this paper, both types of sexism sometimes are associated with abortion attitudes, and the one that stands out, surprisingly, is benevolent sexism,” he continued. “This is consistently related to opposition to abortion.”
Perhaps surprisingly, some of the most strident anti-abortion activists may balk at the suggestion that they hate women – they revere women. “Benevolent sexists see motherhood as the ultimate expression of womanhood,” Sutton explained, adding that these are the people who will “restrict pregnant women's choices in all sorts of ways, for example by preventing them from taking exercise, having an alcoholic drink, or eating cheese.”
That’s not to say that your garden variety misogyny isn’t a big factor in opposition to abortion rights – but it tends to play out slightly differently, Sutton explained.
“Hostile sexism is more important when the reproductive autonomy of women seems to clash with men's,” he told IFLScience. “So, hostile sexists tend to think that men should be able to veto the choice of their partners to have an abortion AND not to have to pay anything towards raising a child if they would prefer that the pregnancy is terminated, but the pregnant woman decides to carry full term.”
The future of American abortions
Should Roe v Wade be struck down, as seems likely, abortion will become illegal in all or most cases in more than half of the US. If history and statistics are any predictors, that could lead to an increase in abortions – no, not a typo – and pregnant people dying.
Those deaths won’t be evenly spread: “Restricting access to abortion disproportionately affects Black women in the US,” Sutton pointed out.
“White women seek fewer abortions than in earlier decades – the number of abortions has been in decline,” he told IFLScience. “This may have weakened the extent to which abortion is front and centre in the minds of some of the most powerful feminist activists.”
But more generally, researchers and politicians alike will soon find themselves grappling with an important question: how did we get to this point?
“Research … needs to examine why the anti-abortion side of the debate has been more galvanised and successful in the US,” Sutton told IFLScience.
“It must be remembered that for the most part, the US is swimming against a global tide,” he added. “In Ireland and Latin America for example policy and public opinion is moving in the opposite direction.”
So what’s different in the US?
“There’s so much pressure from the top to provide ‘balance’ [in the media], which results in shows booking guests who spread misinformation and argue in bad faith,” explained Moser, who was not involved in the study.
“On-air hosts in the US generally are ill-equipped to push back on those kinds of arguments,” she told IFLScience, “so guests are pretty much allowed to present a false picture and viewers are presented with a skewed version of reality.”
Sutton has a similar theory. “Even pro-choice, strongly liberal participants appear to have been swayed by abortion myths that downplay the benefits of access to abortion or even present it as harmful,” he told IFLScience. “We suspect that this, together with some of the perceived moral granularity of abortion […] may dilute support for abortion rights relative to the certainty and simplicity of anti-abortion standpoints.”
If Roe is overturned this June, it will be for ideological reasons, not scientific ones. Like the rise of preventable epidemics, the ever-present climate crisis, the onslaught against trans rights, and so many other issues, the fall of abortion access in the US will likely be traced back to bad-faith actors, rumors, and misinformation.
“In my experience, there’s a level of misinformation that newsrooms tolerate when it comes to abortion that simply does not fly on other issues,” Moser told IFLScience.
“Most respected newsrooms would not allow an anti-vaxxer to come on the airwaves and lie about vaccines without any pushback, but the same is not true for anti-abortion activists spreading lies,” she said. “Facing an angry, vocal minority who’ve politicized facts, advertisers are successfully pressuring newsrooms into thinking ‘balance’ is the same as truth.”