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The abortion puzzle

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | March 6, 2012

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.

anit-abortion demonstrator wtih poster

U of Arizona Wildcat

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.

abortion graphContrast 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.

pro-choice demonstrator

U of Mn. Library

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.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “The abortion puzzle

  1. The answer to your question is pretty obvious. Of all of the issues you brought up, abortion is the one that people have taken up the most issue with.

    People are constantly fighting for the lives of those humans who are yet to be born, and that type of tireless work is effective.

    You can’t tell people to abstain from sex before they are ready to care for a child, you can’t tell mothers to raise their children instead of hire a nanny, you can’t tell someone which sexual orientation they should choose and you can’t tell somebody which god to serve (and, in all honesty, it’s your own damn business!). But, since a pregnant woman has a new human being inside of her….you can fight for the life of that human.

    And, if, like me, your mother ran from an abortion clinic minutes before your “goodbye” appointment and in doing so gave you life instead, you have to.

    • I would argue that while you can try to persuade, you should not force someone to carry and give birth to the new human being inside her, because in doing so, you diminish the rights of the person who already exists.

      Unlike every other human being in existence, those humans who are yet to be born rely entirely and completely on the life and health of another human being. This makes them different from you and me, people who are already born.

      In my religious tradition, it gives them significantly fewer rights, since the life of the person already born and living (the mother) takes precedence over the life of the person who is not yet born. I happen to believe that my religious tradition has it right on this issue.

      Your mother made a moral choice. That choice is only meaningful in a world where women have choices. If your mother had been forced to give birth to you, I do not feel confident that she would have cherished your life. Perhaps you would have been given up for adoption. Perhaps you would have been resented. Perhaps, in desperation, your mother might have endangered her own life.

      Instead, you were cherished, because she made a moral choice in the safety of an abortion clinic. She was not forced — she chose you.

      If you want to fight for other lives like yours, then you should fight for all women to have the same moral choice your mother had.

  2. “Abortion is murder”. People opposed to abortion strongly believe that abortion takes away the “right to live”, and is morally wrong. Though, others for abortion argue that the statement is just a religious belief. Pro-abortionists consider that having an abortion is the women’s’ choice.

  3. The paramount fact of life that history has taught us is that the world would be a far better place for the human race if women controlled the majority of leadership positions in all political, religious, educational, economic and social institutions.

    All that we men have proven since Mesopotamia is that our amygdalas override our PFCs the majority of the time, producing never-ending disasters throughout history due to dominant cultural values of greed and immorality.

    Whereas women have proven beyond all doubt that the only reason that the human race has survived this long is that female PFCs are far superior in controlling their emotions.

    Hopefully the republicans will learn the hard way in the 2012 that women aren’t going to put up with male stupidity, corruption, immorality, hypocrisy and incompetence any longer, kick all the republicans out of Washington DC and replace the majority of politicians with women. The world will be a far better place for future generations if women join together and fight back at last to protect the human race which is a job that women are far superior at accomplishing.

  4. It is not constatutional for Obama the insane psycho to order Churches to fund Abortion and contraceptives with their own money. But Obama believes he is the tyrannt dictator who hates democracy and loves more his own views and not democrats or the Constatution.

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