On Monday, The University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life published their new study entitled “How Americans Understand Abortion” which claims to be “the largest known in-depth interview study of ‘everyday’ Americans’ attitudes toward abortion.”
Researchers acknowledged that abortion is “among the loudest and most contentious subjects,” but nevertheless “is a subject that people acknowledge but generally avoid.” However, they contend your everyday public opinion poll don’t delve deep enough and don’t give the full picture of the attitudes towards abortion in the United States.
“We hear statistics and common labels, but we have a hard time seeing in them the people they supposedly describe — people like ourselves or our friends and family members. What we’re left with is a thin and segmented view of public opinion on abortion, disproportionately amplifying some (already loud) voices and rendering others silent. This reduces confidence in what we ‘know’ about everyday Americans’ abortion attitudes, despite the plethora of readings on the topic.”
Their study was based on individual 75-minute interviews with 217 participants. Rather than simply polling their opinions on abortion with fixed-answer questions, researchers conducted in depth interviews to discuss the morality and legality of abortion at length with each participant.
The mostly in-person interviews were conducted between March and August of last year, the study having been designed to engage “a diverse cross-section of American adults in comprehensive one-on-one interviews averaging seventy-five minutes, with questions designed to elicit open-ended thoughts, feelings, and experiences connected to abortion attitudes.”
The participants were not aware they would be discussing abortion ahead of time, the study examining “how people’s knowledge of the issues involved in abortion is sometimes very limited; how their opinions are informed by religion, politics, and personal experience; how labels such as pro-life or pro-choice are often limited, and how society might facilitate a more empathetic, productive public conversation about abortion.”
One major finding of the study was poor moral reasoning and the inability to critically think about ethical issues.
“Interviews reveal that most Americans have not given careful thought to abortion, beyond how labels, politics, and media frame public conversations. Wells of meaning are deep, but they are typically unexamined. Most Americans don’t know for themselves what they believe about abortion. Many find themselves bereft of scientific, legal, and moral lexicons to reason through difficult topics, working with a limited set of facts and tools in moral reasoning,”
Participants were either ambivalent, afraid to even entertain a discussion on abortion, or unable to articulate their beliefs on morality.
“Others insist that all moral decisions are ‘situational’ or ‘circumstantial’ or that they don’t have the experience and knowledge to adjudicate between them. Absent this, they position themselves as not morally opposed (though none in this group chose ‘it depends’ as their stance toward morality).”
A majority of participants expressed either moral ambivalence to abortion or said “it depends,” meaning they believe the morality of abortion is circumstantial. 35% said that abortion should be ‘legal under any circumstance,’ while 14% of respondents said abortion should be ‘illegal in all circumstances.’
The study also makes some recommendations to facilitate and better the national discourse around abortion:
- Expand education in science, law, and moral reasoning.
- Provisionally set aside ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ labels and the perceptions they carry.
- Enter conversations about abortion on common ground to support positive long-term outcomes for pregnant women, their conceiving partners, and children.
- Work toward the common goal of reducing circumstances that give rise to abortion decisions.
Read the full study here.