Support For Abortion by Reason: Mother’s Health Tops List: Attitudes Are Inconsistent

From the General Social Survey, a picture of the support for abortion by reason from 1972 until 20061.

Figure 1

Figure 1

GSS questions on abortions are asked of about 1,000 (order of magnitude) respondents every one to two years. Here are the questions on abortion attitudes, keyed to the legend in the figure:

  • Mother’s Health = “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the woman’s own health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy?”
  • Rape = “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if she became pregnant as a result of rape?”
  • Defect = “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if there is a strong chance of serious defect in the baby?”
  • Poor = “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children?”
  • Any Reason = “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?”
  • Single Mom = “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if she is not married and does not want to marry the man?”
  • Genetic = “Suppose a test shows the baby has a serious genetic defect. Would you (yourself want to/ want your partner to) have an abortion if a test shows the baby has a serious genetic defect?”

Abortion2—i.e. the purposeful killing of the life inside a would-be mother—is a moral and ethical question. Whether every American or none said they were “for” or “against” abortion, we still would not know whether abortion was right or wrong. Nevertheless, the attitudes people have about abortion are still interesting in what they reveal about the culture.

Support for abortion in general appears to be slipping3: each reason exhibits a (more or less) slight downward trend. Whether these trends will continue, or whether they are an artifact of the data-collection process, we cannot say. But assuming the validity of the survey to represent attitudes of citizens, there is evidence that abortion support is decreasing. Not greatly, but gradually.

All of these questions are ambiguous such that it is not possible to know just which of several interpretations is being answered by a respondent. For example, in “Mother’s Health”, does “woman’s own health is seriously endangered” mean that without the abortion the mother will die? Or will she certainly suffer ill effects? Or it is only possible she will die or suffer ill effects? And if she suffers ill effects, will she recover or be permanently effected? This ambiguity adds to our uncertainty (see footnote 3).

But even accepting the somewhat amorphous wording, some interesting features stand out. The first is the gradual decline, as noted. The second are the two distinct groupings. They do not make as much sense as you might think.

Take the two questions “Defect” (about 75% support) and “Genetic” (about 33% support). One would suppose that the answers to these would be the same, since they explore the same topic: what to do with a baby that is less than perfect. The difference in responses is between the generic and the personal. Question wording suggests respondents answering “Defect” predominately wanted to allow the eugenical solution4 for other people. But they did not want to avail themselves of it: support dropped by more than half when they imagined their own child in “Genetic”.

Both “Mother’s Health” and “Rape” are more visceral and immediate; as such there is no surprise that these have 80-90% support. But now we wonder how people would have responded were they asked directly about their own (or wife’s own) health, or whether they would feel as strongly about abortion if they (or their wife) were raped. The discrepancy between “Defect” and “Genetic” leads us to suppose that support would drop.

“Poor”, “Any Reason”, and “Single Mom”—all now hovering around 40%—are categorically different. These are not about horrifying or frightening circumstances, but have the flavor of abortion for the sake of convenience, or even birth control. Remember: this is not per se about why would-be mothers actually have abortions5, but about attitudes on the allowability of the subject. People are less tolerant of allowing abortions for the sake of mere convenience, as these three questions indicate.

There is no (direct) indication here for why these changes are occurring or why there are differences. One would have guessed a priori that if one supported the killing of the life inside the would-be mother, that one would always be in support. Why approve of killing it in some circumstances and not others? The opposite is true, too: if one is against killing of the life, why not always disapprove of killing it? After all, no matter what—as is no matter what—the life is still being killed, even if that life has been produced in a way which is not met with approval.

If people were consistent, we’d expect all these lines to overlap. They do not, so we conclude people are inconsistent. Given that we cannot learn whether abortion is moral or not from these data, we can at least deduce that (on average) people are ethically confused about the subject.

——————————————————————————–

Notes:

1There was no data for 1986. 2006 was the last year of data provided. There is no question about incest and abortion (that I could discover). “Genetic” was only asked thrice.

2I use this word as it is popularly defined: I do not examine spontaneous medical abortions, miscarriages, and the like.

3The GSS is a valid survey: but then every survey is valid for groups which “look like” the sample polled. Whether the GSS sample “looks like” the citizenry of the United States of America is not a question I can answer, but which I will assume, keeping in mind there is a non-zero chance that the sample does not look like the citizenry, and thus we should be less than certain about any conclusions drawn from it. Further, our certainty is again lowered when we realize the survey might not have been administered in exactly the same way through time: i.e. the samples themselves might not “look like” other samples.

4It is also interesting that most become squeamish when using words like “eugenics”, though aborting a child because that child is a girl (say) or that it lacks a set of genes not on a designer’s list of “Must Haves!”, or that doctors guess the child will not meet this year’s definition of “perfect”, just are engaging in eugenics.

5Whether non-mothers actually have abortions for the purpose of birth control is not interesting here, except as that proportion of women in the GSS sample who have had abortions for birth control interpret the question in this sense. I’m guessing this will be a very small number, or even zero.

Comments

Support For Abortion by Reason: Mother’s Health Tops List: Attitudes Are Inconsistent — 34 Comments

  1. There are no absolutes in this world. Everybody would agree today that killing is ok to protect your life, the life of your close (family), and to defend your country. So killing is not an absolute wrong, it depends on the situation (and time – in the heydays, killings for honor was ok). So bringing up the situation of the killing (and when it happened – a 100years ago or last week)would seem relevant.

  2. Now David. Would you say it is absolutely true that “There are no absolutes in this world”? (This is where I’d insert the little smiley face, if I knew how.)

  3. E.G.: “If people were consistent, we’d expect all these lines to overlap. They do not, so we conclude people are inconsistent. Given that we cannot learn whether abortion is moral or not from these data, we can at least deduce that (on average) people are ethically confused about the subject”

    ON ANY SUBJECT having a strong emotional element people display inconsistent behavior. This intrinsic aspect of human nature ought not be something any adult needs to derive.

    THAT ASIDE, in a society asserting the exercise of religious freedom by its citizens, any determination that abortion is a morally repugnant act under any, or most (e.g. not for mother’s health), situations invariably will have some overlap–usually dominated by–some underlying religiously-based value.

    That much is just the way things are. So….for the State to decree that abortion is illegal it would be doing so, at least in dominant part, based on religiously-based reasons. Which it has no right to do.

    That aside, consider–banning abortion does not make those that don’t seek it/get it when they otherwise would any more morally upright, or the society any more morally upright, any more than truly evil criminals in solitary confinement are any more morally upright because, deprived of the capacity to sin they don’t (e.g.: Matt 5:28 teaches the willful intent/desire is all needed).

  4. @Ken

    “in a society asserting the exercise of religious freedom by its citizens, any determination that abortion is a morally repugnant act … will have some overlap–usually dominated by–some underlying religiously-based value.

    ….for the State to decree that abortion is illegal it would be doing so, at least in dominant part, based on religiously-based reasons. Which it has no right to do. ”

    That doesn’t fly. Imagine a religion forbidding the killing of people. You are now saying that the State also forbids the killing of people for only because it is dominated by that religion.

    The State, or the Citizens of a State, are also capable of deciding that killing people is bad, and that it is therefore illegal.

    If some religion already had that as dogma, fine. And too bad for the religions that insist on the killing of people for whatever dogma.

  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-refuting_idea

    “Many ideas are called self-refuting by their detractors, and such accusations are therefore almost always controversial, with defenders stating that the idea is being misunderstood or that the argument is invalid. For these reasons, none of the ideas below are unambiguously or incontrovertibly self-refuting. These ideas are often used as axioms, which are definitions taken to be true (tautological assumptions), and cannot be used to test themselves.”

  6. “So….for the State to decree that abortion is illegal it would be doing so, at least in dominant part, based on religiously-based reasons. Which it has no right to do.”

    Couldn’t the government go with the scientific evidence that a fetus has the complete DNA of a human being and ban abortion on the same grounds it bans other destruction of human life?

  7. I knew you would come up with that reply…:)(easy version of the smily face). I am not saying that there are no absolutes as a matter of truth (who knows what the truth is, certainly not me), but application. When applying a moral code, there is no way around looking at the specific situation. If absolutes exist, no one figured out a way to convince everybody else that he has the right approach. Until someone does, we will have to think about every situation, and for policy deciders, use the public sphere to determine the most legitimate course. Any other way would imply coercion by one group on another. I see no inconsistencies here, only the constraints of real life.

  8. @David: “If absolutes exist, no one figured out a way to convince everybody else that he has the right approach. Until someone does, we will have to think about every situation, and for policy deciders, use the public sphere to determine the most legitimate course. Any other way would imply coercion by one group on another. I see no inconsistencies here, only the constraints of real life.”

    If no one knows the truth and no one knows absolutes for sure (or how to convince others), how do you know that your suggested course of action of “thinking about every situation” is better or why “coercion by one group or another” is worse?

  9. In Canada, few or no doctor have problem providing abortion before the 21st week. Most abortion above 90% are done before the 12th weeks.

    After the 21st week doctor have been able to keep babies alive but with serious health trouble in the long term

  10. I don’t know, it’s the way things are done today, which emerged without a central planner (you could say it’s the result of a darwinian process). It’s also what courts do today (at least in Canada, not familiar with the US judiciary). This approach is seen as legitimate by citizens (nobody in the steets wanting to overthrow our system). It has nothing to do with truth, or knowing. It is. It could change, who knows. I didn’t even propose that it’s better, it’s the system that came out, and it works. It could change, but I would guess any other system would have a long ride before gaining the same legitimity. It’s our world’s solution to the diversity of opinions (or perceived truths by individuals).

  11. ‘Logical’ and ‘reasonable are not synonyms. People can be logically inconsistent and still be reasonable. Indeed, I believe most people are.

  12. Hans,

    Do people really still care about climate statistics? Or have you discovered some error in these?

    JH,

    Didn’t we read in the previous post something about “all human life”? What say you here?

    All,

    Canada moving to get us from both ends. This story. “In the Flanders region in Belgium, one study found that 32% of euthanasia deaths were carried without the patients’ explicit request, and another found that 47% of euthanasia deaths are not reported as euthanasia.”

    The hilarity arises from this clip: “To circumvent the Criminal Code, the panel says the province should pass a law spelling out that when a physician hastens a patient’s death, it is not considered suicide.” Either the “patient” (notice the word no longer means he who seeks healing) wants to die, therefore it’s suicide, or he doesn’t, therefore it’s murder.

  13. @Briggs
    I am a climatesceptic liberal european atheist and I am simply longing to read something from you again that I agree with.

  14. Hans,

    I take it very kindly that you stop by. But don’t you think it’s a wee bit dangerous to only seek out only those opinions with which you agree?

  15. @David:

    But it isn’t everyone’s solution. Even if it were, you would have to explain how a majority opinion on an issue would make it the better course of action. My point here is to demonstrate that, by removing a foundation of universal, absolute principles, everything else just falls into the hole that remains. You can’t raise up a structure over it.

  16. Josh,
    Somehow, there is a structure, and it could be useful to analyse how it came about. Millions of people coexist in a country, most disagree on anything and everything, nobody believes in the same truths or absolutes, but all manage to live together. The way they achieve this is by sharing a common public space (political institutions, media, blogs) where ideas and issues are debated. Not everybody agrees with what comes out, but most agree on the process. It is perceived as legitimate. I never talk about how it should be (the normative), but how it is (the positive). For the normative, you need absolutes. For the positive, you need to look at how things came about. If the public space is how it came about, then it must be nurtured (that alone can be an interesting discussion).

  17. What would be interesting is college educated women at graduation, versus after already having had 1 child (at least).
    (Perhaps also at school graduation versus after 1 child.)

    The question: can hippies learn to love their version of the evil bomb?
    Are the hippie-drones, like Muslim-drones, immune to humanity?

    Would be nice to know if they could be salvaged (Muslims cannot be).

  18. @Josh “You can’t raise up a structure over it.”

    Yes you can. It just won’t be rational. And it won’t last. But you can do anything you want: if you want to call your left foot Harry, and throw him a tea-party, you can.

    This the very essence of what is means to be a hippie.

  19. @Joshua

    “Couldn’t the government go with the scientific evidence that a fetus has the complete DNA of a human being and ban abortion on the same grounds it bans other destruction of human life?”

    By that measure every sperm is sacred.

  20. “Canada moving to get us from both ends. This story. “In the Flanders region in Belgium, one study found that 32% of euthanasia deaths were carried without the patients’ explicit request, and another found that 47% of euthanasia deaths are not reported as euthanasia.”

    Which study might this be? The original article has no link.

  21. Mr. Briggs,

    Wars and abortions are evil. You clearly voted for George Bush, so you are considered an accomplice.

    As I have said before, if I had Buffett’s or Gates’ fortune and it were all up to me, I’d help all the unfortunate women who face the agony of making abortion decision.

  22. @andyd:

    “By that measure every sperm is sacred.”

    Does biology indicate that a sperm contains complete human DNA and the structure to begin construction of the rest of the body? I was unaware of this. I had always figured it needed something else to make that happen.

  23. @david:

    “Somehow, there is a structure, and it could be useful to analyse how it came about. Millions of people coexist in a country, most disagree on anything and everything, nobody believes in the same truths or absolutes, but all manage to live together. The way they achieve this is by sharing a common public space (political institutions, media, blogs) where ideas and issues are debated. Not everybody agrees with what comes out, but most agree on the process. It is perceived as legitimate. I never talk about how it should be (the normative), but how it is (the positive). For the normative, you need absolutes. For the positive, you need to look at how things came about. If the public space is how it came about, then it must be nurtured (that alone can be an interesting discussion).”

    Your original statement was “There are no absolutes in this world.”

    But then you try to define, absolutely, the definitions of terms and conditions of those terms. You say things like “If the public space is how it came about, then it must be nurtured”, without indicating why we “must” do anything. You don’t discuss why we should not pursue the normative over the positive or why we should pursue the positive over the normative. You don’t discuss why we should pursue at all.

    “most disagree on anything and everything, nobody believes in the same truths or absolutes, but all manage to live together”

    Do these disagreements mean that no absolutes exist, or that many people are wrong about them? Are you absolutely certain one way or the other? If not, how do you know that absolutes do not exist? It just seems rather incoherent. The very claim that “no absolutes exist” is self-refuting. It would be like saying “No sentences exist.”

  24. This is not a sentence.

    This post contains no text.

    We were never here and this conversation never happened.

  25. Josh, “no absolute exists” can only be taken as a shortcut. A more precise formulation is: there is no generally accepted absolute. And saying this is not an absolute, because I am open to any suggestions of an absolute, but I’m still waiting(maybe an even better formulation: I’ve never seen a generally accepted absolute).

    When I say we must nurture the public sphere, it’s because it works (not because it’s good) AND because the group has come to the agreement that it must be nurtured. Some group may not accept it (anarchists?). I don’t say we should not pursue the normative,I’m saying the positive gives us understanting of the structure. Some may desire to have our structure (whatever you that is, society, laws, morals,..)based on the normative, but it would probably imply having ones absolute imposed on another group that doesn’t see things in the same way. Again, even if absolutes exists (maybe it does?), the point is moot since we can use an absolute in a discussion if nobody agrees on that absolute.

  26. we “can’t” use an absolute in a discussion if nobody agrees on that absolute. Sorry, error…

  27. “Josh, “no absolute exists” can only be taken as a shortcut. A more precise formulation is: there is no generally accepted absolute. And saying this is not an absolute, because I am open to any suggestions of an absolute, but I’m still waiting(maybe an even better formulation: I’ve never seen a generally accepted absolute).”

    There are many things that are “generally accepted” as absolute. For instance, that A is equivalent to A is generally accepted as absolute. That A is equivalent to B if B is equivalent to A is also generally accepted as true. Most rules of logic are generally accepted as absolute.

    Certainly, we both agree absolutely that our own selves exist, or we wouldn’t be here having a discussion. The discussion itself exists absolutely. That would be generally accepted.

    I believe what you -mean- to say (and correct me if I’m wrong), is that on moral issues, you don’t believe there are generally accepted absolutes. I would disagree with this as well, but whether one agrees or not with your beliefs about it, you cannot imply from it that we cannot know that there are absolute realities to morality or that we can know what those are.

    “When I say we must nurture the public sphere, it’s because it works (not because it’s good) AND because the group has come to the agreement that it must be nurtured. Some group may not accept it (anarchists?).”

    Perhaps it is true that it “works”. But we must wonder why having it “work” would make it better than if it were not to work. Even the anarchists want something to “work”, though they disagree what that might be with those of us who are civilized. And so we still have to account for the “ought”.

    “I don’t say we should not pursue the normative,I’m saying the positive gives us understanting of the structure. Some may desire to have our structure (whatever you that is, society, laws, morals,..)based on the normative, but it would probably imply having ones absolute imposed on another group that doesn’t see things in the same way. Again, even if absolutes exists (maybe it does?), the point is moot since we can use an absolute in a discussion if nobody agrees on that absolute.”

    But what can be legislated but morality? What else is legislation and governmental power for than to force one’s “absolutes” (specifically “moral absolutes”) upon others. Surely it is only because we disagree on things that we need laws at all. The question is: Why should some laws be preferred to others? If we believe utilitarianism to be the absolute goal of law, then surely “because it works” is a legitimate justification. But as you said, we do not agree on moral absolutes. So why is utilitarianism the best approach?

  28. @Briggs

    That link is opinion, not the study that backs up the numbers from the first opinon.

  29. JH,

    “You clearly voted for George Bush, so you are considered an accomplice.” I did vote for Bush. But then your support for Obama makes you an accomplish in his calumnies. For instance, Obama supports vile “partial birth” abortions, among other things, and is quite willing to use drones to inflict a few civilian casualties. Should have switched to Paul!

  30. Let me add a link to the Dutch Government’s website about Euthenesia and other end-of-life situations: http://www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/levenseinde-en-euthanasie?ns_campaign=Thema-gezondheid_en_zorg&ro_adgrp=Levenseinde_en_euthanasie&ns_mchannel=sea&ns_source=google&ns_linkname=euthanasiewet&ns_fee=0.00&gclid=CMfri7OE87QCFeTMtAodungAxg. There is among other things a complete set of documents with the Government’s answers to questions from Parliament regarding Euthenesia. In Dutch, of course.

    This website should hold a record of all the research being done on euthenesia in Holland, as soon as some research has been announced either the pro- or the against- euthenesia political parties will ask the Government on its opinion.

  31. Pingback: Changing Attitudes On Suicide And Euthanasia | William M. Briggs

  32. Josh, that’s the beauty of our system, where ideas are debated in a public sphere (I refer here to the work of Habermas). If you believe in utilitariasim, that’s what you will use in your approach,while some other will use another approach. What ever comes out is usually seen as legitimate. Doesn’t mean everyone agrees (that never happens), but there’s an understanding.