Your Position on Abortion Is Probably Way More Complicated Than You Think It Is

Let's say someone asks you, "are you pro-life or pro-choice?" How would you answer?

Americans are split about 50/50 in their answer. 

So there we go: two evenly-matched, intractable enemies that can do little but try endlessly to crush each other. End of post, enjoy your week.




Just kidding!

Let's ask it another way: "Do you think abortion should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?"

So about 50% say that abortion should be legal in all circumstances, and 50% want some sorts of restrictions. Maybe this represents the "pro-choice" and "pro-life" camps. 

But what if we went a level deeper? Let's say you answered, "legal in all circumstances." Do you really mean all circumstances?

Let's consider: What if we just asked people whether and when there should be term limits on abortions? Almost all Americans support some sort of term limit: only 27% of Americans support 2nd trimester abortions and 14% support third-trimester abortions (including 25% of the "pro-choice" camp). Of those 14%, how many would want to limit these late-term abortions to special cases, like risk to the mother, rape, etc? (I couldn't find an answer for that specific 14% group.) How many would be comfortable legally allowing abortions one day before birth?

Similarly, when we provide more specific options for abortion policies (like different timelines of restrictions), we see the number of people completely against abortion seem to drop. In the same poll, only 13% choose “illegal under all circumstances.” Of those who identify as “pro life,” only 24% believe that abortion should never be permitted.

Further, when respondents are asked about individual cases where abortion might be allowed--including danger to the mother, rape and incest, etc, 89% agree that abortion should be legal some or all of the time. When asked whether abortion should be permitted in the case of parents disapproving of the gender of the fetus, 92% of Americans say this should not be allowed.

As we get into greater detail on abortion policy, we see that our positions can become quite complicated pretty quickly.

Our intractable enemy groups have decreased from a size of about 50% each to a size of about 10% each. Most Americans probably would quietly agree with the statement, "abortion should be legal in some but not all circumstances."

For that middle 80%, what do "pro-life" and "pro-choice" actually mean? If you hear such a label, can you accurately predict what someone's policy positions would be?

Would a "typical pro-choice person" favor a 20-week restriction on abortions, 24-week, no restriction, or something else? Would they be likely to oppose or favor parental notification when a minor has an abortion? Could we accurately predict what kinds of restrictions a "typical pro-life person" would prefer?

Ultimately, asking whether someone is "pro-life" or "pro-choice" gives us at best very little information about their policy preferences on abortion. In many cases, these labels will deceive: they are unlikely to represent one's personal policy preferences with any accuracy, and those that hear that one is "pro-choice" or "pro-life" are likely to assume what that means to you.

If you've been convinced to put yourself in the pro-life or pro-choice camps, consider: is your position on abortion simple enough to be summed up in a single word?