ALEXANDRIA, Virginia — “There’s absolutely no point to some of this stuff,” said one man, referring to a list of abortion restrictions in his state. He called laws requiring an ultrasound or a 24-hour waiting period before getting an abortion “pandering legislation to shore up the base” with “absolutely no practical real-life value.”
The man was part of a focus group convened one September evening in Alexandria by the research firm PerryUndem. The eight men in the group were all Virginia residents who had voted for Donald Trump in November, and all had told the focus group organizers that they believed abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. But when they got to talking, their views on abortion turned out to be complex — especially when it came to women’s experiences actually having the procedure.
The most visible national polling on abortion focuses on fairly basic questions. A 2017 Pew poll, for instance, asked about whether abortion should be legal — 57 percent said it should be legal in most or all cases, while 40 percent said it should be illegal in most or all cases. In a Gallup poll, also conducted this year, 49 percent of Americans identified as pro-choice, and 46 percent said they were pro-life — Gallup has found a relatively similar split for the past decade.
But in a poll conducted two years ago, Vox and PerryUndem found that 39 percent of Americans fell outside the traditional divide between pro-choice and pro-life — they identified as either both or neither. “Abortion views are indeed strongly held,” Sarah Kliff wrote at Vox at the time, “but what most discourse misses is the nuance — the personal factors and situations that influence how each individual thinks about the issue.”
The focus group in Virginia, one of six PerryUndem organized around the country to help develop new survey questions on abortion rights, reflected the kind of nuanced thinking Kliff wrote of. It was also a chance to see what a few supporters of President Trump, whose administration has jeopardized access to family planning abroad and contraception at home, really think about reproductive rights. As PerryUndem notes, the words of just eight men don’t begin to represent the views of all male Trump voters. But they do reveal the diversity of opinion on the issue, even among those who seem like they might agree. What’s more, they show that support for women and their choices can crop up in unexpected places.
People who oppose abortion can still have a range of views
Before they were selected for the focus group, each of the men was asked whether abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all. Everyone in the group had chosen one of the latter options. But when asked during the focus group if they thought abortion should be legal in the first trimester, four of the men said yes. All eight said it should be legal in cases of rape or a threat to the mother’s life.
The focus group facilitator also asked the men to weigh in on a list of Virginia’s abortion restrictions, which include a mandated 24-hour waiting period and ultrasound before a patient can get an abortion. While one man was comfortable with all of the laws, many others expressed confusion or disapproval. Several men saw the proliferation of anti-abortion provisions as pointless, especially since abortion, overall, remains legal. One man said he was “sad that Virginia spent so much time talking about this.”
“Roe v. Wade hasn’t changed since ’73, so that’s a lot of wasted time and effort on just a wedge issue,” he said. “But party politics makes sure that we talk about this every single election.”
“It seems like they just keep on adding stuff,” another man said, but “nothing really changes.”
One man was especially concerned that anti-abortion laws were crafted by “a bunch of old white men sitting in a room.” He noted that he had “never been in a situation where I was pregnant and didn’t know what to do,” and said that those crafting abortion laws needed more input from women. Several other men in the group agreed.
Northern Virginia, where the focus group was held, isn’t a particularly conservative area of the country — and the state as a whole went to Hillary Clinton in November — so it’s certainly possible that PerryUndem could have found more vehement abortion opponents elsewhere. Still, the men in the focus group were by no means comfortable with the idea of abortion. The same man who was worried about old white men making abortion laws said he believed life begins at conception. Another man, the most consistently anti-abortion of the group, said the fetus is “a life — it’s a human being.”
“Why do we offer somebody the opportunity to say, ‘I wanna get rid of it?’” he asked.
But most of the men agreed that since abortion is legal, the experience should be comfortable, not frightening or shaming. One man said he would want a woman getting an abortion “to feel safe” and to know that “her family and loved ones are still going to be there for her.” Another said, “it should be like you’re going to have an outpatient procedure done.”
“Even if I disagree with the decision,” a third man said, “if it’s someone you care about, you don’t want to shame them.”
When it comes to people’s opinions on abortion, the way you ask the question matters
Many of the men in the group were supportive of certain aspects of abortion rights, even though they opposed abortion in general. This may seem surprising, but as the 2015 Vox/PerryUndem poll found, what people say about their views on abortion depends a lot on what questions they’re asked.
When half of a polling panel was asked if “abortion should be legal in almost all cases,” 28 percent said yes. But when the other half was asked if "women should have a legal right to safe and accessible abortion in almost all cases,” 37 percent said yes. As Kliff wrote in 2015, “That's a jump of 9 percentage points in who thinks abortion ought to be generally legal, just by highlighting the fact that a woman is involved in the situation.”
In the September focus group, men who had given one answer to a multiple-choice screening question often had far more nuanced, complex responses to more open-ended questions they could answer at length and in person. To some degree, all political opinions are hard to reduce to simple responses to a poll. But Americans’ views on abortion may be especially hard to capture using the relatively crude framing of most poll questions.
It’s also worth noting that the majority of men in the group said they didn’t talk about abortion very frequently. One said it typically came up every six months. Another said, “the only time in the last three years it came up was yesterday when your screener called me.” They also weren’t particularly deeply informed on abortion laws or practices — a majority didn’t know Virginia’s laws on abortion before reading about them as part of the group. Many were surprised to learn that about one in 4=four women will have an abortion in their lifetime (if current rates continue) — the men had guessed rates as low as 1 percent.
All of this points to the fact that for some voters — perhaps especially for men — abortion is a bit abstract, something they don’t think about much and may not know much about. That matters because abortion restrictions can have big effects on people’s lives, sometimes forcing them to travel great distances or pay thousands of dollars out of pocket. Though it’s typically Republican politicians who spearhead these laws, the focus group showed that men who voted for a Republican president may not support such legislation — and they may not even know it’s being passed.
As a candidate, Donald Trump was all over the map when it comes to abortion rights, but his administration has been staunchly anti-abortion. We’ve seen that in his reinstatement of the global gag rule, which bars foreign aid funding to groups abroad that discuss abortion as a method of family planning; his promise to sign a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks; and his appointment of E. Scott Lloyd, the anti-abortion director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement who tried to bar a 17-year-old undocumented immigrant from getting an abortion. In all this, it’s easy to assume that Trump is carrying out the wishes of his supporters. But as the September focus group showed, even avowedly anti-abortion Trump voters actually have a wide range of views when you get down to the details.
PerryUndem aims to use the findings from the focus group — along with others that brought together women and men with different opinions and voting histories — to develop new survey questions that capture Americans’ complex views on abortion. If they succeed, the effort may give all of us, including our political leaders, a better sense of what Americans really want when it comes to abortion rights. If the September focus group was any guide, it may be very different from what they’re getting.