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 Marla Friedman/MEDILL

Chicagoans explain why abortion is a contentious issue and why religion is a driving factor behind people's views.

American public takes middle ground on abortion, studies show

by Marla Friedman
Nov 28, 2009

Abortion sparks public controversy between activists with polar views, yet studies show that the bulk of Americans consistently fall in the middle of the spectrum.

When Americans are given more than two options for the extent to which abortion should be legal, the majority of respondents choose a middle option, according to surveys by two national polling organizations, Gallup and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

“People can sometimes take pro-life and pro-choice positions in the same interview depending on how the questions are worded,” said Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center.  “So you arguably do have the majority of the public in that ambivalent and conflicted position.”

The conflicted position often goes unheard in the backdrop of activists’ views, particularly amid current controversies over two abortion laws in Illinois.  The Illinois Parental Notice of Abortion Act – currently on hold – requires a minor’s adult family member to be notified about an abortion, and the Chicago buffer zone ordinance -- which took effect Nov. 17 – prohibits activists from coming within eight feet of people entering or exiting an abortion clinic.

“We don’t force things down people’s throats or stick things down their pockets, and I would like to see the whole concept of a bubble zone found unconstitutional,” said Joseph Scheidler, national director of the Pro-Life Action League.

“[Women] are subject to abusive language, threats, misstatements about medical information, it runs the whole gamut,” said Steve Trombley, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Illinois, to defend the need for the buffer zone ordinance.

An Illinois circuit court judge recently delayed the Parental Notice of Abortion Act until at least January 2010 – and activists will likely continue to debate the law in the public eye.  However, studies show that these polar views do not represent the bulk of American opinion on abortion.

Polls show broad continuum

More than half of the respondents in a 2009 Gallup poll said abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances.  In contrast, only 23 percent said abortion should be legal under any circumstances and 22 percent said it should be illegal in all circumstances.

“It’s certainly something that we’ve seen over and over throughout the data since the 1970s,” said Lydia Saad, Gallup poll senior editor.  “Very few people are consistently saying abortion should be legal or illegal in all different situations. Americans are very moderate on the issue.”

Likewise, respondents were more likely to report that abortion should be legal or illegal in most cases, rather than all cases, in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, in conjunction with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

In August 2009, 31 percent of respondents said abortion should be legal in most cases, whereas 16 percent said it should be legal in all cases.  Twenty-seven percent said abortion should be illegal in most cases and 17 percent said it should be illegal in all cases.

“Wherever they fall, pro-life or pro-choice, they tend to go toward the middle of options in our questions; they just don’t have the same strength of opinion,” said Keeter, in reference to the higher percentages in the survey.

But others say that people who take middle positions on abortion make a firm decision to stay in the middle.  John Russonello, a partner at research firm Belden Russonello & Stewart in Washington, D.C., said abortion is different from other issues – such as school vouchers and global warming – that have a “persuadable middle” comprising people who have not made concrete decisions.

“On the abortion issue, the people in the middle are not muddled, they have made up their mind to be in the middle,” said Russonello.  “They say, ‘I’m here because I want to be here and this is where I want to stay.’”

Where faith fits in

Abortion lends itself to a variety of attitudes because it is, in essence, an act of aggression, said Dr. Martha Dupecher, who runs a private psychotherapy and psychoanalysis practice in Washington, D.C.

“I think most people worry unconsciously about being hurtful to others,” she said.  “They don’t want to be, but they also want to defend their own interests, and I can’t really think of an arena where this comes more clearly into play [than in abortion].”

Dupecher said that a woman can’t know exactly how she’s going to feel about abortion until it becomes an option in her or her daughter’s life.  Reports show that even Roman Catholic women, who are taught by the church that abortion is a sin, may change their minds when it comes to their personal lives.

More than one-quarter of women who received abortions in 2000 identified themselves as Catholic, according to the most recent survey by the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit that runs a program of social science research, policy analysis and public education.

Likewise, almost as many American Catholics (40 percent) as American non-Catholics (41 percent) reported that abortion is morally acceptable, according to a March 2009 Gallup analysis.

“People who are opposed to abortion, often for religious reasons, will when push comes to shove, with their own daughters or themselves, proceed with an abortion and may even deny having had it later on,” said Dr. Henry David, director of the Transnational Family Research Institute.

The variety of abortion opinions among Catholics was most recently revealed when Rhode Island’s Roman Catholic bishop asked U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Island) not to receive Holy Communion because Kennedy, who is a Catholic, supports abortion rights.

The Rev. Christopher Robinson, pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Lincoln Park, said the debate does not change the Catholic Church’s unequivocal stance against abortion.

“I don’t know what goes on in people’s minds and hearts, that’s not my place,” he said.  “But in terms of integrity, to call yourself a Catholic, you have to be attached to this public stance.”

Religious beliefs are the primary influence for one-third (32 percent) of Americans’ attitudes toward abortion, according to an August 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center.  The strength of traditional interpretations of the Bible strongly predicts people’s abortion beliefs, said Keeter.

At First Baptist Church of Chicago in Kenwood, the Rev. Jesse Brown said his church is historically anti-abortion, but that some church members cite extenuating circumstances when it comes to their personal views.

“Have there been people who had an abortion in my congregation? Probably,” he said.  “Your pastors hear the whispers and rumors.  But it’s not like it’s going to be something that is actively advocated in an African-American church.”

Finding safety in the middle

The complexity of people’s standpoints can best be understood through individual stories, said Dupecher.

“Stories of women put in impossible situations, whether it has to do with rape, incest, or young women getting pregnant and not being able to talk to their parents,” she said.

Dupecher said that the middle of the abortion spectrum is a “healthier place” to be than on one of two ends of the spectrum.

“What happens psychologically when people can’t stand uncertainty is they become dogmatic,” she said.  “They get defensive and become positive that they’re right.”

But most people prefer to avoid the polar views that are often held by activists, said Dr. Salvatore Didato, a clinical psychologist who studies group conformity and decision making.  He said people are attracted to a middle perspective because abortion deals with the difficult, fundamental issue of life and death.

 “Most people feel comfortable by not taking an extreme position,” he said.  “They feel more secure, they feel less vulnerable.  There’s always safety in the middle ground.”