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