Tthe Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade set off complex and tense conversations at the state level about where and how to draw the abortion “line.” Voting results from Kansas suggest that the results may defy expectations and cause a gradation far beyond that of a typical partisan issue.
Prompted by voting which consistently shows ambivalence among the American public (legal support for abortion some but not all the time); my team of sociologists interviewed hundreds in 2019 to better understand how ordinary Americans think about this issue.
Despite public rhetoric to the contrary, questions about preferences regarding abortion access and regulation are difficult to answer for many Americans. Few give well-rehearsed position statements (“I have a hard time answering that”). Most are barely familiar with their state’s abortion laws (“I can’t tell you I know them; I won’t pretend I do”). Most carry scant medical expertise (“I’m not a doctor”). Few talk about abortion in depth with others (“I’m not one for controversial conversations”).
But it is to this quagmire that the current legislative moment in America brings us, redistributing millions as a ballot box issue.
We learned that there are some conditions that generate fairly widespread levels of support for legal abortion. A serious health risk to a pregnant woman, for example, was made an “obvious” justification among interviewees leaning towards the legality of abortion (“It is clear that women should not be asked to give their lives for a baby to be born”) and a more reluctant but common (or “only”) exception among those who lean towards restricting abortion (“The doctor says, ‘It’s you or the baby’; ‘It’s something you go in for and get special permission'”). Pew Research Center poll shows that nearly three-quarters of all Americans support legal abortion in such circumstances, although clinicians who must navigate what qualifies. This is “self-defense,” our interviewees said; “You have the right to do whatever you need to do to protect yourself.”
The minority of Americans unwilling to consider legality even amid threats to the life and health of the mother (11 percent, according to Pew) gave us explanations, including: “Maternal health is something to consider when first having sex”; “This is why the bed was invented”; “No one can tell me about a problem with current technology when it really is a problem”; “A woman who loves this baby will not want to have an abortion”; and “Depends on the Lord.” Mental health risks drive lower overall support for legal abortion. “Anyone can say their kids are causing mental health issues, so I’m not going to buy it.”
Most Americans’ “line” also extends to situations creating a high likelihood of serious harm or health problems to the baby (53 percent among Americans nationally), but interpretations vary widely. The more emphatic responses of interviewees in support of legal abortion cited examples such as paralysis, the need for 24-hour care or “where the baby can only live for a day or two”. Things like “blindness,” “cleft lip,” “a missing limb,” or a “Pandora’s box” of potential fetal abnormalities, as one interviewee put it, garner less support for legal abortion. The answers touch on the inherent dignity and worth of life, the meaning of disability, dependency and quality of life for both the affected child and the person caring for them. In other words, sorting out legalities on this front means sorting out Americans’ commitments to who is “wanted,” cared for, how much “suffering” is permissible, who pays, and who decides what is “best.” Legal abortion among such issues is categorized by some as “mercy”; by others, as a “slippery slope” leading to “genetically engineered perfect humans.”
And it gets even more complicated from there.
Our Republican interviewees were less likely than others to say that rape warrants legal access to abortion, repeating national poll which shows the same. Rape pregnancy is “hard” and “difficult,” these interviewees told us, but abortion is “selfish” when “it’s not the child’s fault” and “we don’t know what that child is bringing into the world.” Some fear that rape allegations could become an “excuse” to gain access to abortion. Unlike the health-related circumstances that create exceptions among those who oppose abortion, pregnancy by rape promises a ready-made alternative: “Someone is waiting in line to have the privilege of adopting this child.” Several Republican dads acknowledged , that they could make an exception “if it was my daughter.”
Many of the Democrats we interviewed linked their pro-legalism to concerns about late-term abortions for non-health reasons. “The earlier the better.” “This third trimester is really hard for me.” “I think it should be done early, if at all.” As captured by national poll, a majority of Americans who support legal abortion also support limiting legality based on how long a woman is pregnant. That includes half of Democrats, a majority of whom do not support legal abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy. Interviewees mentioned emotional bonds developed during their own pregnancies and reacted with deep disgust to the idea of non-medically forced ‘late-term’ abortion. “If a child can be born prematurely and have a chance to survive outside the womb, then I don’t agree with abortion.”
There is also a subtle and harder-to-legislate sense among Americans everywhere that abortion should not be the “default” option, taken lightly or used as “contraception.” “I hope it won’t be like taking Tylenol”; “I hate to see a woman abuse an abortion to get out of a situation.” While finances are common among the reasons for abortion that patients themselves give for terminating a pregnancy, nearly half of our interviewees disagreed with legal abortion driven by economic need. Money “shouldn’t be a reason” not to have a child; “I was poor and I had children”; “We have a social system.” Interviewees were almost split in their support for legal abortion for a married woman who does not want more children, often interpreting this use of abortion as a form of “birth control” when “these days there are all kinds of ways to avoid pregnancy. ” National survey similarly shows that a majority of Americans have some concern that “easy” access to legal abortion will make people less “careful” about sex and contraception.
Read more: When is an abortion lifesaving? It’s not always clear
Every day, Americans vacillate between what they think is “right” and “wrong” when it comes to abortion, what the “good” or “bad” reasons for it are, and whether it’s even their place to ask, know, or say so . The law offers a clumsy means of evaluating and adjudicating “reasons” for abortion—while ordinary Americans tend to think about it that way. Medical expertise comes second to moral evaluations of hypothetical situations by strangers.
What makes fifty state policies so difficult to negotiate, in other words, is the inherent overlap and clash of values around abortion. Most Americans treat abortion as a moral issue involving visceral, if understudied, core values. Not everyone sees the law as the right place to resolve these kinds of feelings — or know exactly how to authorize it to do so. “I hate to watch [abortion] used almost recklessly, but I’m afraid to limit its availability because I think it’s too big a solution for other people.
While most Americans don’t really know much about abortion law or where exactly to draw the “line,” they may find themselves pondering it now, more than ever. Abortion politics in America today, however, suggests a limited capacity for deep research and deep understanding of an issue that has troubled the nation for generations.
More must-see stories from TIME