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What Americans think of abortion

A new Vox poll reveals surprising nuance in public opinion.

“Abortion is killing a baby. But I’m not saying it’s always wrong.”

This was the first thing David King told me when I called him in late March and asked him talk to me about his views on abortion.

King and I didn’t know each other when I called. He’s a former dairy farmer who now works at a Walmart in rural Ohio. A few weeks earlier, he’d been among the 1,067 adults randomly selected for a Vox poll on abortion policy. He gave our pollsters, communications and strategy firm PerryUndem, an answer that interested me. When asked whether he identified as pro-life or pro-choice, he didn’t pick one. He picked both.

“From my point of view, I believe all babies go to heaven,” King told me when I asked him to explain how both labels fit his viewpoint. “And if this baby were to live a life where it would be abused ... it’s just really hard to explain. It gets into the rights of the woman, and her body, at the same time. It just sometimes gets really hazy on each side.”

King’s perspective is, in a way, unique: he has a distinct and nuanced view on when abortion should and shouldn’t be legal, one that takes in all sorts of personal and circumstantial factors. He’s generally anti-abortion, but not completely. He doesn’t fit neatly into either side of the debate.

In another way, though, King’s viewpoint is common: in our poll, we found that 18 percent of Americans, like King, pick “both” when you ask them to choose between pro-life and pro-choice. Another 21 percent choose neither. Taken together, about four in 10 Americans are eschewing the labels that we typically see as defining the abortion policy debate.

39 percent of the public doesn’t identify as strictly pro-life or pro-choice

I’ve covered abortion for about eight years now at four different publications. The beat has put me in touch with doctors who provide abortions and those who travel to Washington each year to protest the procedure at the March for Life. I’ve talked to abortion rights advocates struggling to appeal to a new generation. I’ve been in the doctor’s room as the procedure is done.

Abortion usually gets framed as a two-sided debate: Americans support abortion rights, or they don’t. They think Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in America, was a good ruling, or a terrible one. There are the pro-choice groups and the pro-life groups.

But I’ve spent a lot of time talking to friends and family and the people I meet in my reporting about how they view the issue. Here’s what I’ve learned: they don’t live in this world of absolutes. Abortion views are indeed strongly held, but what most discourse misses is the nuance — the personal factors and situations that influence how each individual thinks about the issue.

Our poll confirms my anecdotal findings: 39 percent of Americans don’t choose a label in the debate.

We also found that how you ask the question matters — a simple wording change can significantly alter whether Americans say they support legal abortion. Our pollsters, Mike Perry and Tresa Undem, gave a different question to the two halves of our polling panel. They asked one half whether they agreed with the statement “Abortion should be legal in almost all cases.” The other half got a different wording of a similar idea: “Women should have a legal right to safe and accessible abortion in almost all cases.”

Twenty-eight percent of the public agreed with the first statement — and 37 percent with the second. That’s a jump of nine percentage points in who thinks abortion ought to be generally legal, just by highlighting the fact that a woman is involved in the situation.

Chart: More people support abortion rights when the poll language focuses on women

This is especially notable when you consider that most of the people we polled — more than three-quarters — said they held their views on abortion strongly.

I spent considerable time looking at our findings and trying to understand them. What does it mean to identify as both pro-choice and pro-life, and what does that say about how Americans view abortion? Why do opinions on such a controversial issue swing so significantly just based on the wording of a question?

I couldn’t answer these questions on my own, so I called some of our poll’s respondents. I reached out to people who told us they identified as both pro-life and pro-choice.

Here’s what I learned: the public has diverse views on abortion. But it’s rarely a split between “abortion is right” and “abortion is wrong.” Instead, there is a nuance that the public conversation typically misses: a factoring in of personal circumstances and beliefs that manifest themselves in deeply held individual views.

We’ve framed our abortion debate all wrong. It isn’t black and white — it’s thousands of different shades of gray that exist somewhere in the middle. This matters because by ignoring that gray space, we miss something important: there are abortion policies that a majority of Americans could agree on.

Americans’ opinions on abortion are surprising and nuanced

King was among the first people I reached, catching him at home on a Thursday morning.

He was certain in his opposition to abortion. But at the same time, he didn’t like the idea of protesting abortion or donating to groups that advocate on the issue. “I don’t go out protesting or nothing like that,” he said. “Never will.”

King and I talked a bit about whether there’s a situation in which he could ever see abortion as the right option for him, personally. He wasn’t totally sure.

“I think of myself as pro-choice in a way, because it’s such a personal matter for each individual,” he says.

This is an idea that turned up in our poll, when we asked respondents to think not about themselves, but about someone else seeking to terminate a pregnancy. We asked respondents: if a woman had decided to have an abortion, what they would want that experience to be like for her?

Chart: Most Americans agree on what they want a woman’s abortion experience to be like

We found a surprising amount of agreement on these questions. As King put it to me, “There are my personal beliefs, but you can’t blanketly say, ‘You can’t do that.’ I can voice my opinion, but I won’t protest. I think that’s ridiculous.”

Meghann August, a 31-year-old mother of one in Florida whom I spoke with, told me something similar. She had a clear view on when she thought abortion was appropriate.

“I guess if you’re raped or in a desperate situation, then abortion would be the way to go,” she says. “But if you’re just being careless and irresponsible, then I don’t think it’s the right decision.”

We got to talking about a friend of hers who had had an abortion. Our poll found that those who had talked to a friend or family member about an abortion experience or decision tend to be more supportive of abortion rights.

People who have talked to someone about the experience of having an abortion or the decision to have one are more supportive of abortion access — Chart

Of course, it’s hard to know which way this relationship runs. People might have their views changed by a discussion — or those who support legal abortion already might be more likely to have those discussions in the first place.

August says her views didn’t change as a result of talking to her friend. She believes what her friend did was wrong — but that she also understands why she did it.

“I don’t agree with her decision, because she was being reckless,” she says, “but at the same time I understand it. I’m not accepting, but I don’t condemn her. She couldn’t take care of it.”

These are the type of conversations I kept having again and again — ones where lines exist, but they aren’t the ones that we typically think of in the abortion policy debate. And they’re different for each individual.

“I’ve seen little babies and tiny toddlers with teenage mothers or older women who have been abused by their child’s father and reject their newborn,” Elaine Beldsoe told me, when I asked her to tell me how she developed her views on abortion. She’s a 90-year-old retiree in Texas who used to work at a Christian nonprofit. “There are bad things I’ve seen over the years. And I don’t see any real change — or think that [anti-abortion laws] can change human nature.”

Bledsoe said she’s become increasingly supportive of abortion rights as she’s become older. Still, she said she doesn’t think the procedure should become completely legal and knows exactly where she would draw the line on regulation.

“There’s a point when we know the fetus is viable, and at that point the abortion would be unacceptable,” she said. “Even if the woman doesn’t want the child, it can go to an adoption agency.”

These conversations surprised me in two ways. First was the fact that they happened at all: I expected to have the phone slammed down, at least once, when I asked someone I never met to discuss abortion rights. That never happened. All the people I spoke with were willing to talk about an issue that we typically consider taboo — sometimes for nearly an hour.

Then there were the opinions themselves, which didn’t fit clearly into any particular label. The people I spoke with had strong but nuanced views. Those who leaned in favor of or against abortion rights didn’t do so absolutely — they all had lines, drawn in different places, about when abortion is and is not appropriate.

Abortion is more common and less divisive than we realize

There are two things we get the most wrong about abortion in the United States. First, that it’s a rare experience, and second, that it’s a policy area where the public simply cannot agree.

Abortion is a common experience in the United States, much more so than most of us realize. There are just over 1 million abortions annually, as of 2011. Put another way: 1.7 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 have an abortion each year.

The best statistics say that one in 10 women will have an abortion by age 20 — and one in four by age 30. By age 45, one in three American women will have terminated a pregnancy. Twenty-one percent of pregnancies in the United States end in abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

If you find the one-in-three-women statistic surprising, you’re not alone: when we told participants in our poll this figure, 73 percent of them said it was higher than they expected.

1 in 3 women have had an abortion by age 45; 73% of the public say it is more than they thought

One possible explanation for why this shocks people: we don’t talk much about abortion. The one-in-three figure suggests there’s a decent chance that most of us know a woman who has terminated a pregnancy. But only four in 10 of our poll respondents tell us they’ve talked to someone about their abortion experience or decision.

I find myself in a similar situation. As a reporter, I’ve talked to multiple women who’ve terminated pregnancies. But as a friend or family member? That conversation has never come up — even though, with the numbers where they are, it’s almost certain I know someone who has been through that experience.

Abortion is common — and, in certain ways, there is surprising agreement in the United States about what the process of obtaining an abortion ought to be like. There is a clear split between people who think abortion should be legal in most or some situations and those who disagree. Most poll questions don’t probe any deeper than that. We accept the divide.

Our poll tried something different: it asked respondents to think about women who had decided to have an abortion and how that experience ought to be.

And there, we found agreement. Seventy-two percent want the experience to be comfortable. Seventy-three percent want it to be supportive, and 74 percent want it to be nonjudgmental.

Most Americans (70 percent) think women shouldn’t have to travel more than 60 miles to obtain an abortion. These numbers are higher than those who support the Roe v. Wade decision (68 percent) and much higher than those who think abortion ought to be legal in most or some situations (46 percent).

Abortion clinics are closing

Women are traveling further to obtain abortions as some clinics have closed in the face of new regulations. In Texas, for example, the number of clinics has fallen from 43 in August 2013 to eight in October 2014.
Women are traveling further to obtain abortions as some clinics have closed in the face of new regulations. In Texas, for example, the number of clinics has fallen from 43 in August 2013 to eight in October 2014. (Data for these charts come from the Texas Tribune)

Women are traveling further to obtain abortions as some clinics have closed in the face of new regulations. In Texas, for example, the number of clinics has fallen from 43 in August 2013 to eight in October 2014. (Data for these charts come from the Texas Tribune)

Taken together, our poll and my ensuing interviews changed how I saw Americans’ opinions on abortion. In most of my coverage, I find it rare to see leaders of the pro-life and pro-choice movements having a productive conversation. When put into debate, they often talk past each other. This makes sense: these are the people who exist at the more polarized ends of the issue.

But I could easily see the people I interviewed — people like David King and Elaine Bledsoe and Meghann August — having a productive discussion about how our country regulates abortion. It’s not hard for me to envision these people, from diverse backgrounds and with significantly different views on abortion, still finding space where they agree. They might get behind similar abortion laws — ones that protected women from aggressive protesters, for example — in a way I could never see Washington lobbying groups collaborating.

These aren’t the voices that set abortion policy; they don’t vote on laws or run lobbying campaigns. But they do live under those laws — and even though they come from different backgrounds and live in different states and hold different views, they have way more in common with one another than most of us realize.

PerryUndem Research/Communication conducted the survey among n = 1,067 adults 18 and older nationwide, March 4 through 12, 2015. The survey was administered among a nationally representative sample of adults, using GfK’s Knowledge Panel. The margin of error is +/- 4.1 percentage points. Some results do not add to 100 percentage points as a result of rounding. Top line results are available here.


Editors: Susannah Locke, Eleanor Barkhorn
Designer: Tyson Whiting
Developer: Yuri Victor
Charts: Anand Katakam, Tyson Whiting
Video: Joe Posner

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