In the last 40 or so years, Americans’ attitudes on many social issues – especially on issues having to do with gender and sexuality – became markedly more libertarian. Americans increasingly supported women’s rights, women working, and women seeking positions of authority, including running for president. Americans also became notably more laissez-faire on most sexual issues — premarital sex, living together out of marriage, and even homosexuality. (Interestingly, Americans became less tolerant of extramarital sex.) On religion, too, Americans accepted more individual choice.
Yet Americans’ views on abortion, an issue that blends gender, sexuality, and religion seem to have changed little since the 1970s.
Two recent essays in Contemporary Sociology suggest that the context of the abortion debate has shifted. It is now much less about the role of women and more about something else.
There are lots of ways of asking about abortion, but the question I’ll use here (from the General Social Survey) captures the general results: “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if . . . the woman wants it for any reason?” Before the Roe v. Wade decision on behalf of abortion rights perhaps 25% to 30% of Americans were inclined to say yes. Then opinions shifted a bit in the liberal direction. Since that initial shift, however, the distribution of opinions has changed little. The trend since Roe v. Wade is displayed in the blue line in the graph below. About 37% of Americans said yes to abortion on demand at the end of the 1970s and about 41% said yes at the end of the 2000s.
Contrast that to the change, three times greater, in the percentage who said that “sex relations before marriage… [is] not wrong at all” – the red line – from about 38% at the end of the 1970s to about 51% at the end of the 2000s. And contrast that to the shift, five-fold greater, the green line, in the percentage of Americans who disagreed with the proposition that “Women should take care of running their homes and leave running the country up to men.”
Another perspective on this compares generations of Americans. The generation born in the 1970s was far more liberal than the generation born in the 1910s on whether women should stay at home and on premarital sex (by over 30 points on each question). But the 1970s generation was only a bit more liberal on abortion than the 1910s generation (only 7 points more).
What makes the history of abortion attitudes so different?
In her classic 1984 book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, Berkeley sociologist Kristin Luker explained that the passion of the abortion conflict, as expressed by 1970s California activists on both sides, was rooted in conflicting visions of women’s roles. For one side, motherhood was the essence of being a woman, in which case abortion, especially abortion for convenience, devalued women’s purpose in life. For the other side, women were, or should be, essentially like men in ambitions and careers, in which case unwanted pregnancies undermined their freedom and the validity of their dreams.
Contributors to the Contemporary Sociology discussion Freedman and Weitz and, separately, Shields argue that while the division on abortion remained largely unchanged, the reasons for support and opposition had changed. For one, the composition of the women who got abortions shifted. College- or career-oriented young women in the 1970s saw abortion as an escape from a circumscribed life; the same sorts of women in the 2000s didn’t get pregnant to start with. More and more, it was older, married, poorer women, many already with children, who got abortions; they did so feeling forced by their dire circumstances – too many mouths to feed, abandoned by the father, and so on. The activists on both sides changed as well. More anti-abortion activists were those women who had abortions and regretted having them – or having to need them. More of the pro-choice activists were young, college-educated women who never had an abortion, much less a back-alley abortion.
The nature of American motherhood changed, as well. By the 1990s, Americans assumed that most mothers – even “good” mothers – would work. The agonizing between having a career and having a child that 1970s women felt had largely gone away. So, a person’s stance on abortion had less and less to do with her stance on the proper role of women. Indeed, by the late 2000s, pro-life Americans were largely egalitarian on gender issues, having come a vast distance since the 1980s. Although they were, to be sure, still less feminist than pro-choice Americans, there was no longer the vast chasm between the two sides on women’s proper role.
If that issue, how we understand womanhood, has been removed from the abortion debate, what remain are concerns about faith and about the personhood of the fetus. (As an illustration of the growing connection between faith and abortion opinions: In the 1980s, 22% of those who said that the Bible was literally true approved abortion on demand compared to 65% of those who said the Bible was a book of fables; in the 2000s, the literalists were even less likely to approve than before – 20% – but the skeptics were more likely – 69%.) These issues, God and the beginning of life, may be harder issues than feminist concerns and ones which Americans wrestle with as much or even more today than they did 40 years ago. And thus the stasis on the abortion question.
Kristin Luker replies (3/6/12):
My take is that since abortion has been legal (although not always accessible) for almost forty years, most people under sixty never knew the terror of being pregnant when they did not want to be (which usually meant unmarried.) I would say that the younger generations have the what I call “the luxury of moral nuance,” meaning that they access a more complex (and less stark) set of choices than women did before abortion was legal.
As the Susan G. Komen Foundation furor[over de-funding Planned Parenthood] shows, I think, there is (to quote Richard Nixon) a vast silent majority that takes for granted that abortion is now and will forever be legal. Any frontal assault on the formal right to abortion (as opposed to measures such as those in Virginia and Texas that seek to make abortion more stigmatized and harder to get) will unleash these women – and men – which is why my guess is that the Supreme Court will NOT outlaw abortion entirely, but continue to find things like pre-abortion ultrasounds as not covered by the “undue burden” standard laid out by [retired Justice] Sandra Day O’Connor. (This standard said that the state could reasonably regulate abortions as long as they did not pose an “undue burden” to women seeking abortion.) My hunch is that this issue will be very central in the 2012 election.
(The original column was re-posted on The Berkeley Blog on March 6, 2012.)