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How not to change minds on abortion

Last December Meghan McArdle tweeted,

“Looking at abortion opinion, it’s actually quite striking how little men and women differ on this question. The whole pro-life is about men telling women what to do with their bodies” schtick simply isn’t grounded in reality . . . Men are more likely to self-id as pro-life, and women as pro-choice, but when you drill down into specifics, it’s clear this stems from differences in labeling quite similar views.

She backed up her opinion with a link to this article by the polling organisation Gallup: “Abortion Trends by Gender”.

On specific questions relating to abortion, the opinions of American women and men were amazingly close. For instance, in this detailed survey from 2012, 71.5% of men and 69.4% of women said abortion should be legal if there is a strong possibility of a serious fetal defect, and 43.1% of men and 43.3% of women said abortion be legal for married women who don’t want more children.

Opinion has also been remarkably consistent over the years. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1995 60% of Americans thought that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Now it’s 61%. In 1995 38% of Americans thought abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. In 2022 it is 37%.

Why are the lines so flat? Over the same period church attendance has dropped. Support for other ideas once considered the preserve of the radical left, such as gay marriage, has steeply increased. The standing joke is that the Right won on economics and the Left won on culture. So why did the Left’s advance falter on that one issue?

By the way, although I talk about abortion as a left-right issue, because it certainly is one in US politics and to a lesser extent in politics across the Anglosphere, in this post I am not making an argument for or against abortion. If you wish to read my slightly indecisive thoughts on the issue you can do so here: “Thinking aloud on a mountainside”.

I am just interested in the Left’s relative failure to change the minds of Americans on abortion when in the same period it did so well in changing minds (including mine) on issues usually bundled with abortion.

I think it was because in the US and the UK, the pro-choice side almost never engaged with what their opponents actually believed. Over the years I must have read hundreds of Guardian articles on abortion, mostly in its US section because abortion is such a live issue there. I do not recall a single one that argued against the main sticking point of the pro-life side, namely that abortion takes a human life – let alone argued for it. On other issues the Guardian would occasionally let the odd Conservative or other non-progressive have their say about fossil fuels or the nuclear deterrent or whatever, and would often feature writers who, while left wing themselves, at least knew enough of the right wing view to argue against it. However when it came to abortion the line always was, and judging from Twitter in the last few days, still is, that opposition to abortion arises (a) only from men and (b) only from men who wish to control women’s bodies.

It works, a bit. Some men who read that will decide that they do not want to be that sort of man, others will decide that they do not want to be thought to be that sort of man. But an argument that does not even acknowledge the existence of female opponents of abortion will obviously not change their minds. Nor will silence reassure women who are not firmly pro or anti. If the Left will not talk to them about their doubts, then by definition the only arguments they hear will come from the other side.

How about male opponents of abortion and/or men who are not sure what they think? In most cases they simply will not feel that this charge that they want to control women’s bodies has any relevance to them. It’s like being accused of bank robbery when the most you’ve done is put non-recyclables in the recycling bin. Or like being accused in the modern fashion of misogyny rather than sexism: a conscientious man might examine himself and admit that some unjustified assumptions about women might be lurking in his subconscious, but that does not mean he hates women. All in all, that way of presenting the abortion argument is great for firing up those who already agree, but ensures that practically no women’s minds will be changed, and few men’s.

The above “model” is just my supposition, of course. But the remarkable stability of US opinion on abortion over decades is a fact that needs explaining, and that would explain it.

17 comments to How not to change minds on abortion

  • Barbarus

    There’s another factor that might come into play here. Most people probably know, or at least know of, someone who has had to make the difficult decision on abortion, and live with it afterwards. We have some insight into the nuances. Contrast with fossil fuels, the nuclear deterrent, etc.: most people don’t have any such personal knowledge as a basis for judging the simplistic arguments of the politically motivated, and so tend to go with the perceived consensus – which is to say, the most widespread propaganda.

  • Ander

    Heard an interesting interview on R4 from a interviewee in the US who explained conservative anti abortionism. He claimed it arose as a sixties culture war issue out of a reaction by Christian conservatives in reaction to vocal support of abortion by feminists. Prior to the release of an obscure Swiss film tackling abortion, it was a non-partisan low importance issue. But a bit of media exposure about a small event by feminists supporting the abortion message in the film triggered the Christian Right and the rest is history.
    I’ve no idea of the veracity of the story, but I thought it might be of interest here!

  • Pat

    I have seen some figures that show the actual opinions of pro-life and pro-choice people are not as different as one is led to believe. Most pro-choice people are happy with some limitations on the availability of abortion, they just want it available. Conversely most pro-life people will accept a compromise- but they oppose the idea of post birth abortion as proposed by then Governor Northam and by Hillary Clinton.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Dave Chapelle had an interesting segment on this issue, where he argued that if women have the right to choose, so did the men.

    My own personal take is similar to what Europe does – third trimester, no abortion. 2nd Trimester, probably not. 1st? Go ahead. To aid this, 1st trimester abortion can be subsidised. 2nd and third trimester? Well, there are couples who cannot have children but willing to adopt.

    Post-birth abortion? That is an abomination, a pervasion of the original concept so evil, that only leftoids could delude themselves into supporting.

  • Peter Briffa

    The central purpose of the Guardian opinion pages has never been to change minds, it is to tell its readers that they are Good People.

  • Lee Moore

    I do not recall a single one that argued against the main sticking point of the pro-life side, namely that abortion takes a human life – let alone argued for it.

    You would hardly expect anyone on the pro-choice side, never mind the Graun, to accept battle on the pro-lifers’ chosen turf. You dismiss it with a soundbite – bunch o’cells or whatever – and move rapidly on. Basic technique. If you’e a socialist arguing with a free market type you talk about inequality, poverty, pollution, fairness and so on. You do not, under any circumstances, raise the subject of agriculture.

  • Lee Moore

    Seconding The Wobbly Guy, the question of when abortion is OK figures big in real people’s opinions, and not so much in the opinions of the political people shouting at each other.

    Good charts from 538 backing this up. Full of “some” and “most”, but making it clear that The Wobby Guy’s summary is mainstrean Amerian opinion.


    The 538 article does foolishly harp on majority support for Roe’s retention, while failing to point out that most Americans have little idea of what the actual content of Roe is. But you’d expect that.

  • Mind you, this assumes that the polls in question are all that trustworthy to begin with. The fact that those who are pro-abortion have obtained most of their victories through the unelected judiciary rather then through elected legislatures does give such polls all the same flavor as the survey that predicted Alf Landon’s victory over FDR. 🙂

  • Ander (May 7, 2022 at 8:26 am), the Radio 4 claim you quote sounds like pure confabulation – the sort of stuff PC people come up with because they never listen outside their bubble, so are always explaining away the existence of opposition, never explaining it. It sounds like the programme’s ‘expert’ felt what needed explaining (away) was distaste for mothers killing their babies – and/or the follow-on fact that some who felt so wished the law to express that feeling (a wish I’m guessing the Radio 4 lefties had no shadow of a right to criticise, though a libertarian, of course, might critique it).

    That’s my reply to your question FWIW.

    As regards one less confabulatory factor, well, even Ruth Bader Ginsburg once expressed a (very indirect and sotto voce) regret that abortion had been handled in the way Roe did, because (she dimly and minimally recognised) it had exacerbated the culture war on the issue.

  • Snorri Godhi

    My own personal take is similar to what Europe does – third trimester, no abortion. 2nd Trimester, probably not. 1st? Go ahead.

    My own view is also similar, although less specific: it all depends on when and why abortion occurs.

    We can discuss the details of when and why (and i do not have strong opinions about this) but it should be a civil, “democratic” discussion, of the sort that Roe vs Wade prevents.

    I note, however, that The Wobbly Guy generalizes too much about “Europe” (understandably for a guy living in Singapore).

    According to Glenn Reynolds, all European laws about abortion would be invalidated as too restrictive under Roe vs Wade.
    However, abortion in the Netherlands is almost as permissive as in the US.
    The same goes for Singapore.

    Almost all other countries in the world are more restrictive than the US.
    Only 4 countries are more permissive than the US: Canada, China, North Korea, and Vietnam.
    Canada finds itself in unpleasant company.


  • Fraser Orr

    Natalie, you put forward an interesting idea, essentially — pro choice sentiment hasn’t grown because pro-choicers are really bad at arguing their case. But I think it is worth pointing out that by that logic pro life sentiment hasn’t grown because pro-lifers are equally bad at arguing their case.

    In a sense I think it is often hard to make ones case when one is implacable, and think one’s opponents are evil rather than wrong. Who, after all, argues with a monster? But I wonder why then, as you point out, the idea of gay marriage has quite successfully captured the hearts and minds of western peoples? I think that at one point the bifurcation of moral outrage was no less than it is about abortion, if we judge by the loudest yelling anyway.

  • Erik

    Sonograms/ultrasounds may have helped to create empathy for the unborn.

  • by that logic pro life sentiment hasn’t grown because pro-lifers are equally bad at arguing their case. (Fraser Orr, May 8, 2022 at 12:01 am)

    Pro-abortion sentiment has had the same massively disproportionate control of the megaphone as it has had in other areas, yet (as Natalie remarks) has not made the same polling gains as in apparently-related issues. The inequality suggests that either pro-lifers are unusually good in maintaining their arguments in the face of the megaphone or (maybe and/or) some further factors are at work here.

    I suggested one in my answer to Ander above. Roe was always an obvious, crude and insolent lie. By winning in that way, the ruling made many people want to reverse it for the constitution, not solely or necessarily because they had a strong view on abortion beforehand. However that fact would incidentally cause people to think and care about the issue of abortion more than they otherwise would – which may, as a side-effect, have helped them see through the superficial PC justifications where otherwise the megaphone’s crude but loud and little-challenged arguments would have done their lowest-common-denominator work.

  • Stephen J.

    “…pro-choicers are really bad at arguing their case. But …pro-lifers are equally bad at arguing their case.”

    That’s because at its heart, the issue is not a “case” that can be “argued” via a rational evaluation of competing claims according to logical consistency or empirical evidence. It is a simple, axiomatic difference in value hierarchy and definition — either the developing infant has an inherent right to life, even before birth, that supersedes the woman’s right to choose when to be a mother, or it doesn’t. As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity (or as Monty Python demonstrates in the “Argument” sketch), you can’t argue with someone in the sense of proving them wrong if the other person simply flat-out rejects the standard by which you assess right and wrong in the first place.

    Part of the problem is that the post-Enlightenment West is really far more poorly-equipped than it thinks itself to handle genuinely irreconcileable clashes of value of this sort; the principle of “agree to disagree / live and let live” only works if enough people really do agree with it. And another problem is that both groups, like all human movements, struggle with hypocrisy; many pro-lifers are still guiltily tempted by the license made possible by the Sexual Revolution, and consequently by the actions needed to enable that license, while many pro-choice advocates are uncomfortably aware that holding the unborn to have no inherent rights immediately legitimizes, for example, sex-selective abortion, or facilitates the socioeconomic issues keeping Black families from forming and flourishing. It is very difficult to change a mind that isn’t entirely honest with itself about how well it really lives up to its own professed beliefs.

  • At the risk of being blindingly simple and obvious, we might also consider whether the PC sales pitch is harder when the immediate and obvious effect of their policy is that someone who would have been walking around* won’t be. A human being is not there who would have been.

    Many a PC policy presents the good first and opponents must explain the harm – and struggle to be heard while doing so. Sometimes the good does come first – a minimum wage law, for example, presents as an immediate benefit and we are left to explain that it will rapidly inflict outweighing harm. At other times, some people benefit and more people lose at the same time, or even the losses come first, but the PC can mention only the benefits. However it is awfully difficult to discuss abortion while wholly obscuring that someone who would have been there won’t be. Could the obvious be, well, just a bit too obvious for PC propaganda convenience.

    At the risk of being incredible simple and naive in another way, I’ll mention the eugenic and disparate impacts of abortion. To think that PC self-contradiction or hypocrisy could explain a relative propaganda failure might seem almost to brand me a babe-in-arms, politically speaking. I mention the idea FWIW.

    * (crawling around and then walking around, that is 🙂 )

  • Lee Moore

    That’s because at its heart, the issue is not a “case” that can be “argued” via a rational evaluation of competing claims according to logical consistency or empirical evidence. It is a simple, axiomatic difference in value hierarchy and definition

    Yes and no. You cannot get directly from an “is” to an “ought”, and in the land of “ought” values are King. But so long as we are not postmodernists, which is to say scoundrels, reasoning and fact still have their places in the land of “ought.”

    We can ask for consistency as to fact and justification even in other people’s oughts. Why do you value that non-thinking clump of cells, when you do not mourn the death of millions like it ? You claim it’s an outrageous imposition to require a woman to carry a baby for 9 months – would it still be outrageous if it were 9 weeks, or 9 days, or 9 minutes ? How terrible can the burden be if every single person on the planet is only here because some woman bore it ? Should men be required to pay child support for children they would like to have seen aborted, but had no right to demand be aborted ? Is it not a burden to care for an infant, and then a child, until you can legally throw it out of your house ? What’s wrong with that old exposure idea ? Why are babies more valuable one minute after birth than one minute before ? Is the imposition more unjust in the case of rape, and if so why and by how much ? If you rescue a drowning man from the sea, can you throw him back if diverting to port to let him off is going to spoil your evening ? And so on.

    All of these, and many more, require coherent answers that are consistent with the reasoning applied to other questions. You may still arrive at a value impasse, but it certainly isn’t a simple matter.

    Although we may, at the end, simply retreat to ‘well it’s my value judgement, I suppose” we typically have some confidence that we can defend the reasonableness of our value judgement by reference to argument and facts in the world. Should we be bombing Dresden ? “It’s a value judgement, mate.” I think we would normally hope to do a bit better than that.

    It seems to me that the reluctance of pro-choicers to talk about the moral value of the abortee bespeaks a lack of confidence in the solidity of their defence of “it’s worth nothing.”

  • […] compass of the American abortion debate could be set? It is bad form for me to quote myself, but in this post, “How not to change minds on abortion”, I made the point about as well as I am ever […]