abortion as a multi-dimensional issue

As many have noted, surveys that present Roe v Wade as a binary choice simplify public opinion. One reason is that people may not be very clear about what Roe says. In addition, individuals hold diverse views on a whole set of questions, of which these are examples:

  1. Why have some societies sometimes prohibited some abortions? Are restrictions and bans evidence of patriarchy, of partisan political strategy, of specifically religious values, or of hard choices and disagreements about conflicting values?
  2. To what extent should we think of the pregnancy rate and the abortion rate as outcomes of free individual choices; of social structures, pressures, and inequities; or of violence and coercion? Do the answers vary systematically by social class and race/ethnicity?
  3. Is is possible to have better or worse–more or less ethical or valid–views about issues like abortion, or are such views simply personal opinions?
  4. Presuming that there are better and worse views, who has the standing to form views about which cases? Specifically, whose business is it to reflect on whether abortion in general, or any specific abortion, is OK?
  5. Presuming that someone–perhaps only the pregnant person–reflects about abortion in a particular case, which considerations are relevant? Among other possible considerations, what about the circumstances of the pregnancy, the health and circumstances of the pregnant person, or the stage of fetal development?
  6. As a general rule, who do we want to make laws: courts, Congress, state legislatures, or citizens through referenda? Does our general stance about how to make laws apply to the definition and limitation of individual rights? If we want courts–more than voters and elected representatives–to define rights, which rights do we want courts to define?
  7. If one thinks that in some cases or circumstances, abortion should be prohibited, what should happen to the people involved in violating such prohibitions? Who should enforce such rules, and which penalties (if any) should apply?
  8. What does one think about other closely related policies, such as health insurance and child welfare? Would changing policies on those matters change one’s stance about abortion?
  9. What is the metaphysical status of a fetus? When does human life begin, and–a distinct question–when does personhood begin?

If you are pro-choice, as I am, and you are interested in political strategy and messaging, then my sense is that you should hammer away on #7. Public opinion will break favorably when citizens think about possible penalties for women and doctors. I would not emphasize #1, #3, or #9, because I suspect that many Americans see abortion as an authentically difficult issue due to the status of the fetus.

But let’s resist thinking about everything in terms of political strategy, especially if we are not actually political strategists. For the rest of us, all of the above questions (and more) may be relevant, and I’d wager that most groups of people will encompass diverse views on many of them.

See also: what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?; views of abortion by gender; support for abortion rights: a generational story; and notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.