New Public Opinion Research on Abortion Suggests Fresh Approaches for Advocates


There are so many surveys about abortion that it’s practically a cottage industry, but the newest research – by The Public Religion Research Institute of Washington, DC – suggests intriguing and fresh approaches that can help advocates make a more compelling case. For religious advocates in particular, the finding that majorities of most major religious groups favor legalized abortion is significant. As RCRC demonstrates, religious communities can be an important ally in the movement for reproductive rights and justice.  Now, the broader community of advocates has the data and together we can appeal to more people of faith and religious leaders and put to rest the false media-generated  stereotype about religion being against legal abortion.

These are the impressive statistics: 67 percent of white mainline Protestants support legal abortion in most or all cases, as do 66percent of African American Protestants, 54 percent of White Catholics, and a whopping 69 percent of those who are unaffiliated (versus the general population figure of 56 percent). And the numbers are growing, perhaps in response to unfair and unprincipled legislative attacks on abortion and family planning as well as the offensive tactics of extremists who cloak themselves in the mantle of religion.

The survey zeroes in on Millennials (ages 18 to 29) and analyzes their support for abortion compared to their support for same-sex marriage. Young people are very supportive of same-sex marriage but no more supportive of abortion than their parents, leading to the survey conclusion that the so-called “values agenda”  - the term coined by the media after the 2004 election to include abortion and gay rights – is defunct. It seems to me that there’s a simple explanation for this disparity, grounded in experience if not data:  younger people have grown up with same-sex marriage and have been educated about the injustice of sex discrimination in private family decisions, whereas abortion has been the subject of continuous and vicious legislative attacks and stigmatizing in the media and culture in general.

But it’s the finding about “access” that is a potential game-changer: 58 percent of  Americans say that at least some health care professionals in their communities should provide legal abortions and among Millennials, 68 percent think abortion services should be available in their community. In addition, further shattering false stereotypes about religious views, majorities of all major religious groups agree that at least some health care professionals in their community should provide legal abortions (with the exceptions of Latino Catholics and White evangelical Protestants). This is particularly significant: 72 percent of White mainline Protestants, 56 percent of African American Protestants, and 58% of White Catholics think abortion services should be available not only at the community level but in THEIR communities. The hospitals that refuse to provide abortion services (mostly religiously affiliated) need to hear that.

Couple that with another game-changing finding – that most people describe themselves as both pro-life and pro-choice (although the term pro-choice is seen as more socially acceptable) – and new possibilities open up. Perhaps advocates can at long last replace the term “choice” – so problematic because of its association with consumerism – and the legalistic  term “rights” with a term free of negative moralistic judgments: access. 

Which brings me to another intriguing finding: that people of all ages are conflicted about the morality of abortion. We at RCRC have a different interpretation, based on our experience in counseling women with unintended pregnancies and with activists in our Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom program. Millennials have grown up in the most diverse and pluralistic society in America’s history and recognize and respect differing moral views about abortion. In our experience, Millennials support access to abortion services in large part because they believe that individuals should be able to obtain the health services that they themselves determine they need  – based on their religious and moral values, conscience and circumstances.

In a significant finding, 59 percent of Millennials surveyed said they think that “abortion can be the most responsible decision a woman can make in certain circumstances.”  Similarly, women considering abortion are weighing many factors in a morally complex decision; they may be morally conflicted in the abstract but they are generally clear about their own situation. The bottom line, though, is that while people have conflicting views about the morality of abortion – meaning they can see different perspectives and understand different arguments they are not conflicted about the reality of the need for abortion: they want abortion to remain legal and to be accessible in their own communities.

It was troubling to learn that at least half of survey respondents reported having heard their clergyperson talk unfavorably about abortion and homosexuality. While 72% believe you can disagree with the teachings of your religion about abortion and still be considered “a person of good standing” in your faith, it does suggest that women are not getting the support they need and deserve from their religious advisers.  After all, three-quarters of women who have an abortion identify themselves as religious. Advocates who are religiously affiliated might want to talk to their clergy-person about being more understanding and supportive of women grappling with a complex moral decision. To help, RCRC offers training in All Options Clergy Counseling, to prepare clergy to provide non-judgmental support as women decide what fits best with their values, hopes, and circumstances.

After reading and rereading the data, considering possible biases and communicating with Robert Jones, founder of CEO of the The Public Religion Research Institute, I’m cautiously optimistic that there IS something new, positive and important when it comes to research on abortion attitudes. It’s about moral perspectives and moral complexity and it could put us once again on the high ground. Let’s get this right!

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