According to data from the General Social Survey (GSS), abortion attitudes have remained relatively stable since 1972. Despite this apparent stability, some researchers argue abortion opinions have become increasingly polarized, particularly among certain subgroups. Others argue people’s attitudes toward abortion are complex and nuanced; that is, people may feel conflicted or ambivalent about abortion in certain contexts. To better understand this issue, we examined complexity and polarization in people’s attitudes toward abortion using GSS data from 1972 until 2018 (n = 44,302).
The GSS includes six items assessing whether it should be possible for “a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion” under specific circumstances. Using these items, we created an aggregate complexity measure. Negative binomial, Poisson, and logistic regression models were tested to assess potential changes in complexity and polarization over time among demographic subgroups.
Findings indicate changes in complexity across political party affiliations, religious identity, and age groups. However, any significant differences among these demographic subgroups are lost once polarized scores are removed. That is, changes in complexity are driven largely by more people supporting access to abortion in all or no situations; among those who remain conflicted, there has been little change in complexity.
These findings provide a more nuanced assessment of trends in abortion attitudes. Given the saliency of this issue, we recommend researchers consider alternative mechanisms to assess abortion attitudes.
These nuanced assessments of abortion attitudes should be considered when determining the congruence between abortion legislation and public opinion.
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By complex, we mean people may feel conflicted in their stance toward abortion such that their opinions may be dependent on context (e.g., abortion is immoral but should be legal) or may vary from one situation to the next. Complexity in opinion can also refer to feelings of ambivalence in general or ambivalence in relation to abortion in certain contexts.
By non-complex, we refer to people who provided unilateral responses to the General Social Survey questions (0 and 6) compared with complex people who provided responses falling between these extremes (1–5). See the “Method” section for more detail.
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Items from the GSS assessing respondents’ opinions on whether abortion should be legal under specific circumstances:
Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if there is a strong chance of a serious birth defect in the baby?
Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if she is married and does not want any more children?
Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the woman’s own health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy?
Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children?
Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if she is not married and does not want to marry the man?
Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if she became pregnant as a result of rape?
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Jozkowski, K.N., Crawford, B.L. & Willis, M. Abortion Complexity Scores from 1972 to 2018: A Cross-Sectional Time-Series Analysis Using Data from the General Social Survey. Sex Res Soc Policy 18, 13–26 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-020-00439-9