The reaction was fast and strong when word broke this week that the US Supreme Court was poised to overrule Roe v Wade, the historic 1973 judgment that secured the right of pregnant women in the US to have an abortion. Protests erupted outside the Supreme Court building within hours, with anti- and pro-abortion rights protestors clashing until far after midnight. These spectacles are certainly unsurprising to many observers: abortion has long been a flashpoint in the US cultural wars. But is terminating an undesired or non-viable pregnancy as divisive as we’ve been led to believe?
According to Robbie Sutton, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom and co-author of the article, “most people in the US favor abortion rights.” He told IFLScience that “a remarkable characteristic of the leaked Supreme Court judgment is that it purposefully and clearly rejects popular opinion.” Now that Roe v Wade appears to be on its way out, and more than half of US states are considering or have already implemented outright abortion prohibitions, we have to wonder what’s going on.
Despite a flurry of anti-abortion – and particularly anti-scientific – measures recently enacted in several US states, the study notes that the American people remains solidly in the opposing side. They’ve always been like way. Even five years after Roe v. Wade, the General Social Survey (GSS) found that up to 90% of Americans supported legal abortion in some circumstances, and one in three supported the right to have an abortion when “the woman wants it for any reason.”
And support for abortion rights is just growing now. According to the most recent GSS, a majority of respondents now favor the right to terminate a pregnancy “for any reason,” and polls frequently show that three-fifths of Americans support making abortion legal in all or most situations. “Many [anti-abortion] politicians and activists in the United States want for a blanket ban on all abortions.” However, most people are more in favor of ‘traumatic’ abortion, which is required to prevent the mother’s death, than ‘elective’ abortion, which women select for economic, social, or personal reasons,” Sutton told IFLScience.
“However, the difference is problematic since many women face situations where they can’t afford to lose a kid, or are locked in violent relationships, and so on – thus the degree to which abortions are genuinely ‘elective’ is debatable.” Support for elective and traumatic abortions is generally connected — those who favor one form of abortion also favor the other.” This optimistic and nuanced image may appear to be at odds with what we’re told by politicians and the media – and there are several reasons for it, according to Julia Moser, a former television news producer.
“Too frequently in broadcast journalism, the emphasis is just on getting the show on the air,” she noted, “regardless of the content of the guest’s point of view.” “So, if your boss tells you to book an anti-abortion guest, and you just saw a pitch for one in your inbox, most people are far more likely to book that guest regardless of how extreme their position is [rather] than spending the time to research someone with less extreme views because they simply don’t have the time or resources to find someone better.” “To put it clearly, too many TV news directors would rather have a ‘good talker’ with extreme views than a more moderate guest with less charisma,” she continued.
It is this, not the frequency with which abortions are obtained or people’s attitudes on the process, that distinguishes the United States from much of the rest of the world in the abortion issue. “Abortion rights support is lower in the United States than in most other Western nations,” Sutton told. “However, what truly distinguishes America is the extent to which abortion is a divisive subject that is prominent and formative in party politics.”