"It's thousands of different shades of gray": What the pro-choice vs. pro-life debate gets wrong about American views on abortion

Policymakers miss a key nuance that nearly a fifth of Americans understand: One can be both pro-life and pro-choice

By Jenny Kutner
Published April 8, 2015 6:56PM (EDT)
  (AP/Susan Walsh)
(AP/Susan Walsh)

When I told my parents at the end of last July that I was pregnant and having an abortion, one of the first ways they responded was by telling me two of my aunts had been through the same thing. I never knew. After I found out, only one of my aunts talked to me about her experience, but the other has never discussed her abortion with me. And that's pretty normal, because people don't talk about abortion very often.

I've typed some iteration of those words -- "people don't talk about abortion very often" -- countless times since I started writing about reproductive rights several years ago, and I've often wondered, hopefully, what the world would be like if those words weren't true. But after so long wondering, we might have a clearer idea.

Vox's Sarah Kliff conducted an in-depth poll of over more than a thousand Americans about their attitudes toward abortion, regarding its legality, its accessibility and even its place in ordinary conversation. The detailed report Kliff has compiled following her conversations with numerous respondents reveals what's missing from the increasingly polarized public conversation about reproductive rights. It's the voices of ordinary Americans, who seem to have a better grasp of the nuances of the abortion debate than the lobbyists and policymakers most entrenched in it.

The Vox poll found that nearly a fifth of Americans (18 percent) identified as both pro-life and pro-choice when asked to choose a designation, and 21 percent eschewed a label altogether. That means nearly 40 percent of people don't occupy either of two distinct categories, but rather consider themselves to be somewhere in the middle of a spectrum.

Kliff found that people's decision not to identify with a particular label had a good deal to do with how the right to an abortion was presented in the question:

A simple wording change can significantly alter whether Americans say they support legal abortion. Our pollsters, Mike Perry and Tresa Undem, gave a different question to the two halves of our polling panel. They asked one half whether they agreed with the statement "Abortion should be legal in almost all cases." The other half got a different wording of a similar idea: "Women should have a legal right to safe and accessible abortion in almost all cases."

Twenty-eight percent of the public agreed with the first statement — and 37 percent with the second. That's a jump of nine percentage points in who thinks abortion ought to be generally legal, just by highlighting the fact that a woman is involved in the situation.

Additionally, when she spoke to individuals who identified as both pro-choice and pro-life, Kliff found, first, that people were willing to talk with her openly about their views on abortion. But she also discovered Americans' willingness to explore the complexities of a woman's choice -- the respondents displayed "a factoring in of personal circumstances and beliefs that manifest themselves in deeply held individual views."

And that means more than a few Americans effectively disagree with legislation that sharply restricts women's access to abortion, which Vox also took into account in its poll. Seventy percent of Americans think women should not have to travel more than 60 miles for an abortion, yet states such as Texas have increasingly made the procedure inaccessible to thousands of women unless they drive hundreds and hundreds of miles to the nearest clinic. But the Vox poll also found that more than 80 percent of people believe abortion should be informed by medically accurate information, and more than 60 percent believe the procedure should be comfortable, affordable, nonjudgmental and without pressure or added burdens.

"We’ve framed our abortion debate all wrong," Kliff writes. "It isn’t black and white -- it’s thousands of different shades of gray that exist somewhere in the middle. This matters because by ignoring that gray space, we miss something important: there are abortion policies that a majority of Americans could agree on."

Several of Kliff's conversations with respondents are included in her report. Read the whole thing at Vox.

Jenny Kutner

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