Changing Attitudes About Abortion
By Leon H Wolf Posted in Culture — Comments (61) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Every two years, the University of Chicago conducts what is probably the most comprehensive social sciences project in the country, the General Social Survey (GSS).
The questionnaire contains a standard core of demographic and attitudinal variables, plus certain topics of special interest selected for rotation (called "topical modules"). Items that appeared on national surveys between 1973 and 1975 are replicated. The exact wording of these questions is retained to facilitate time trend studies as well as replications of earlier findings.
One of the things the GSS has tracked since 1972 has been national attitudes about abortion. The questions were phrased in the format, "Please tell me if you think it should be possible for pregnant women to obtain a legal abortion if..." followed by a hypothetical reason which might lead a woman to get an abortion. Some interesting and positive news below the fold:
UPDATE by Leon: Thanks to Laura at Pursuingholiness for putting together this spreadsheet. Notice the sharp increase from 1972 to 1973, then the gradual decrease (with a bump in the early 90s) until now.
The first thing that sticks out in this survey is the systematic uptick in abortion permissiveness between the years 1972 and 1973. For each and every single permissiveness category, respondents were significantly more likely to give permissive answers in 1973 than they were in 1972. In fact, the spread between permissive and non-permissive abortion answers shifted 11.30% to the permissiveness side in that one year alone. In 1973, 86.3% of respondents reported having heard of the "recent Supreme Court decision concerning abortion." These results are hardly surprising, as they fit with what social scientists call the "just world" hypothesis, which where there is a powerful, system-affirming motive that leads people to conclude (in highly oversimplified terms) that the way things are is the way things ought to be.1 It is uncomfortable for people to feel that the world is unfair, and so they tend to shift their preferences to fit whatever actually exists.
This suggests, first of all, that the concern over a potential public backlash if Roe is ever overturned is probably overstated. The Roe decision itself was highly controversial and very widely publicized. In the wake of it, a significant portion of the population simply shifted their opinion in accordance with the shift in the law. Second, one would expect that as time went on, and the Roe decision became more firmly entrenched as an immovable reality in the American consciousness, it would be expected that overall permissiveness on abortion would increase with time. This, however, has not happened. In fact, contra expectations, the permissiveness with which people view abortion is uniformly down since 1973.
Generally, abortion permissiveness increased in 1974 and 1975, decreased in the late 80s, rose again in 1992-1993, then generally leveled off until 2000, to drop drastically over the last two years of the survey (there are some exceptions to this, and if anyone wants to graph it or can find somewhere that it's already graphed, that would be very much appreciated). Apart from some rather obvious correlations with the political situation in the country, the very significant thing is that, after over 30 years of life with Roe American attitudes are more - not less - hostile to legal abortion on a uniform business.
1. In 1973, 84.5% of respondents believed a woman should be allowed to legally have an abortion if there was a strong chance of a serious defect in the baby. The permissiveness on this question reached its peak in 1974 at 85.1%. In 2004, only 72.9% of respondents believed that a woman should be allowed to legally have an abortion in this circumstance - the lowest permissive percentage ever on this question, that follows a ten year downward trend.
2. In 1973, 47.7% of respondents believed a woman should be allowed to legally have an abortion if "she is married and does not want any more children." This percentage reached its peak at 48.3% in 1994. In 2004, the number had fallen to 41.8%, somewhat higher than the 38.9% in 1983, but still a decline over tha last 10 years.
3. In 1973, 92.3% of respondents believed a woman should be allowed to legally have an abortion if "the woman's own health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy." This was the high point of permissiveness for this question. In 2004, 86.0% of respondents believed the woman should be permitted to legally have an abortion in such a circumstance, the lowest percentage.
4. In 1973, 53.4% of respondents believed that a woman should be permitted to have an abortion if "the family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children." This percentage reached 54.8% in 1974. By 2004, permissiveness on this question had fallen to 41.0%, an all-time low.
5. In 1973, 83.5% of respondents believed that a woman should be permitted to have an abortion if "she became pregnant as a result of rape." This percentage reached 86.5% in both 1974 and 1991. In 2004, only 76.2% of respondents answered permissively, the lowest figure in the history of the survey.
6. In 1973, 49.1% of respondents believed that a woman should be permitted to have an abortion if "she is married and does not want to marry the man." Permissiveness on this question reached its zenith at 50.6% in 1976. In 2004, permissiveness had fallen to 40.9% on this question, slightly higher than the low of 39.1% from 2000.
7. One of the most interesting things measured by the survey was the question, should a woman be legally able to have an abortion if she wants one "for any reason?" This question, of course, measures the true level of support for the twin holdings of Roe and Doe. Unfortunately, the GSS did not begin measuring this variable until 1977, when only 37.7% of respondents responded permissively. Given the universal phenomenon that pre-Roe permissiveness was lower on all questions, it is not likely that more than 32% of respondents in 1972 would have answered this question affirmatively. This tracks with the claims of Dr. Bernard Nathanson about the cooked polling NARAL produced prior to Roe. Permissiveness on this question reached its peak at 46.3% in 1994, and in 2004 was at 40.6%. This is the only question on the survey which shows a general (although very small) upward tilt in permissiveness. This is, actually, what would be expected for all survey questions, given the "just world" phenomenon - but even this question shows a downward trend in the last ten years.
Support for the reality of Roe is not nearly as strong as the media and the Democrats would have you to believe. And, this survey also provides evidence that overturning Roe would not be as disastrous either socially or electorally as is also commonly believed.
Most importantly, it shows that this issue is not dead - progress is being made, and attitudes are changing. The fight is worth having, and the argument is changing minds.
1See Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, David Yosifon, Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America, 53 Emory L.J. 1645, (2004)