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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Have To Face It

Last week we discussed a recent Gallup poll showing that the number of Americans calling themselves "pro-choice" is at an all-time low.  William Saleton at Slate.com considered the same poll when asking, "Why are Americans becoming more liberal on homosexuality but not on abortion?"  He points out:
At best, support for abortion is barely holding its ground, way below support for contraception, while approval of gay sex and gay marriage are soaring. Something about abortion continues to alienate people who are willing to take a more liberal view of birth control and homosexuality. What is it?
Saleton goes on to reference many surveys that show the population has become more supportive of women's rights and reproductive freedom in other ways, yet, regarding abortion, public opinion has not shifted toward the pro-choice perspective.  If anything, it has shifted away, toward the pro-life view.  Saleton concludes:
When public opinion turns toward reproductive freedom and equal rights for women but continues to oppose abortion, it punctures our dismissal of pro-life sentiment as a vestige of right-wing sexism. Spin and soundbites won’t make the evidence go away. Sooner or later, you'll have to face it.

10 comments:

Portia said...

Maybe it's just me, but I really don't see 'support for gay marriage' going up nationally. Most states who voted on it did not approve it. The only ones who have it mainly have it because their legislature or the courts dictated so. It seems to be a divisive exercise for many people. Many people, myself included, feel it's importance is 'way down there', as compared to the importance of the stopping of abortion.

LifeChoices said...

Saletan's article demonstrates an insanely oversimplified understanding of how public opinion changes. Certain issues evolve together--sometimes by necessity, sometimes by coincidence. Others do not. And opinions on a given issue can be complicated by intersections with dozens of different factors.

For example: Our modern understanding of marriage as "Marriage = Love" evolved after older definitions were forced out by the increasing understanding of women as equals. It used to be that a woman's father sold her for money, and another man bought her so he could have legitimate offspring and someone to raise them. Under that system, women were property.

From there, marriage evolved into a pragmatic partnership wherein the man earned money because women (supposedly) couldn't, and the woman reared the kids because men (supposedly) couldn't. Under this system, women were considered to be people, but limited ones, lacking abilities that men had. When feminism challenged these assumptions and pushed for full equality for women, marriage evolved from "men in the male role, women in the female role" to "two equals loving and supporting each other."

And that definition not only allowed for gay marriage, it demanded acceptance of it. (This is a good read on marriage's evolution: http://reason.com/blog/2012/05/17/how-changes-in-straight-marriage-paved-t) When marriage was a property exchange, there was no room for gay marriage. When marriage was an exchange of "male" skills and "female" skills, there was no room for gay marriage. But now, when marriage is a partnership of equals born of love and respect, there is nothing to differentiate a gay union from a straight one. Logically, the modern definition should apply to both.

As to abortion rights, Saletan deliberately takes an extremely narrow view in his analysis. He sums up the General Social Survey by saying, "By 2006, the last year these questions were asked, only a minority supported legal abortion in the 'any reason'... scenario." However, a look at the actual survey shows the percent of support for legal abortion for "any reason" moving (if erratically) in an overall positive direction. It starts at 36.7 in 1977, jumping up to 40.7 in 1980, declining the whole way down to 33.0 in 1983, and then growing steadily, with only a couple dips, to 45.8 in 1994; it declines as low as 38.9 in 2000, jumps back up in 2002 to 41.4, and then declines again to 39.2 in 2006, where the data stops.

The data set for "Is sex before marriage wrong?" likewise fluctuates. But, for abortion, Saletan focuses on the decline since 1994/95 (through 2006), from his opening paragraphs to his conclusion, whereas, for premarital sex (and the other issues he cites), he only counts the overall increase from 1972 to 2006. Well, guess what? There's been an increase in support for legal abortion for "any reason" from 1972 to 2006, as well. Not as large as the other stats he cites, but it's there. Overall, support for abortion rights has increased over the last few decades.

LifeChoices said...

Opinions on abortion are complicated not just by a rise in women's rights, but also by a change in perspectives on other issues. For example, the increasing rejection of abortion for infants with serious defects does not necessarily equate to a general rejection of abortion, but could easily reflect changes in attitudes towards the disabled, as well as changes in medical science for accommodating and treating disability.

As to shifts away from accepting abortion in cases of poverty, this could easily be the result of decreased empathy for the poor. http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/article/2011/12/16/americans-demonstrate-changed-attitudes-towards-poverty-since-2008-economic-crisi

"From 1986 to 2009, the proportion of people [in the U.K., which Saletan also cited] who attribute poverty to laziness and lack of willpower has grown to a little under 30 percent, with the proportion blaming “injustice in our society” conversely falling... In the United States, the picture is, perhaps surprisingly, a bit more nuanced. The 2001 NPR poll shows that attitudes about welfare at that time were determined by the income of the person asked. Those who made more than twice the poverty level were almost twice as likely as those closer to being poor to say that welfare recipients had easy lives and could do very well without the benefits if only they tried."

(And women are far more likely to be poor: "Four million more women than men live in poverty... In 2010, women earned 77 cents to every dollar earned by men. For black women that figure is 68 cents, for Hispanic women 59.")

The shift of public opinion does not happen in a vacuum. Pro-choice groups may consider abortion to be an issue of privacy, reproductive choice, and trust in women, but that doesn't mean that the public is only exposed to it in those terms. And it's possible that the public, while it trusts women in general, does not trust women in poverty to know what's best for themselves. It's possible that race plays a role, considering the percentage of our minority populations that live in poverty. Saletan addresses women's issues, but neglects to address the intersection with current attitudes towards race and class entirely.

In any case, Saletan might want to remember that 1972-2006 is actually not that large of a time period, and does not paint that broad of a picture. For a more historical view of the shifting opinions on abortion (within a religious perspective): http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_hist.htm They start at 400BCE...

Oh, and lastly: the fact that public opinion has shifted on some women's issues is hardly proof that sexism is dead. (Just as Obama's election is not proof that racism is dead.) It also doesn't prove that abortion is not a women's issue, or that Obama is somehow not black. It's quite possible for sexism, racism, and classism to inform particular opinions even as those prejudices are being rejected in other ways.

LifeChoices said...

TL;DR: The study does not show public opinion shifting away from abortion over the last few decades, and opinions on abortion may be complicated by attitudes towards poverty, disability rights, and race.

M said...

LifeChoices –

I love TL;DR’s.

Anyway, thank you for your comments. They are very thoughtful and made a lot of points I likely would not otherwise have considered. I appreciate that.

In order to accurately compare the general population’s views on abortion versus other social issues (gay marriage, extra-marital sex, women’s equality, etc.) we’d need to compare as similar sample sets as possible over as similar time periods as possible. I hadn’t realized how Saleton somewhat cheated on that.

I enjoyed your explanation of the evolution of society’s view on marriage. It seems, by your explanation, that this development relied on an increasing view of women as equal to men, correct? By some narratives, it would seem that this increasing acceptance of women’s equality would imply a similar increase in acceptance of abortion.

I do understand, though, your point about multiple factors influencing peoples’ views on such things. It’s difficult to isolate a single variable when gauging public opinion. I think that is somewhat Saleton’s point. If women’s equality was the only factor that influenced views on abortion, we should see an increasingly pro-choice perspective. We have not. This could be due to many factors, including some of which you’ve mentioned, and including the humanity of the fetus and concern over the moral implications of taking human life. Saleton’s views do not demonstrate *which* factors are influencing views on abortion, but I think his point (and yours) is correct in that it is not simply misogyny.

M said...

I think Saleton oversteps when he implies that support for the legality of abortion for “any reason” is in the decline. If 36.7 supported this in 1977, and 39.2 supported it in 2006, you could argue it’s slowly increasing or, given the erratic movement of the measure, that it’s holding steady. Of greater interest to me, though, is how support for abortion for “any reason” has changed (or hasn’t changed) compared to support for other social causes. How large has the increase in support been for sex before marriage and homosexuality? How about for whether women should be able to refuse children even after marriage?

Your statements about opinions on abortion for infants with serious defects seem, to me, to go along with the idea that people recognize value in the fetus. A more accepting attitude of the disabled has nothing to do with hating women, but it does have to do with how much value is placed on the life that would be extinguished.

I don’t really see how your link about views on poverty demonstrates your point. The link suggests that views on poverty are strongly associated with income level, and goes on to say,

“Since household income has been declining over time (and proportionally fewer individuals earn more than twice the poverty level), the silver lining of the 2008 crisis might be that more Americans start seeing poverty for what it is: not something anyone ‘deserves.’”

Wouldn’t this imply, then, that *more* people are accepting of abortion in cases of poverty?

Anyway, I didn’t take Saleton’s point to be that sexism is dead. I took his point to be that opposition to abortion is influenced by motivations more complicated than, and supplemental to, sexism. If it were only about sexism, as some like to imply (or state outright), than opposition should decrease roughly proportionally to an increase in acceptance of women’s equality. That doesn’t appear to have been the case.

Of course, I hope that people oppose abortion because of an increased emphasis on the value of fetal life, but I have no trouble believing that there are reasons outside of both sexism and fetal humanity that cause people to oppose abortion.

M said...

TL;DR: I agree that there are multiple reasons that influence the public’s view on social issues. Views on abortion are far more complicated than simply “You all hate women.”

LifeChoices said...

"Since household income has been declining over time (and proportionally fewer individuals earn more than twice the poverty level), the silver lining of the 2008 crisis might be that more Americans start seeing poverty for what it is: not something anyone ‘deserves.’"

Wouldn’t this imply, then, that *more* people are accepting of abortion in cases of poverty?


Yes, except that Saletan's data--the GSS--only has data through 2006. So if the 2008 crisis has led to an increase of acceptance for that particular reason, we don't know it. Not from that poll, anyway.

I took his point to be that opposition to abortion is influenced by motivations more complicated than, and supplemental to, sexism. If it were only about sexism, as some like to imply (or state outright), than opposition should decrease roughly proportionally to an increase in acceptance of women’s equality. That doesn’t appear to have been the case.

Saletan challenges the idea that the pro-life movement is fueled by sexism, saying, in his closing, "[W]hen public opinion turns toward reproductive freedom and equal rights for women but continues to oppose abortion, it punctures our dismissal of pro-life sentiment as a vestige of right-wing sexism." Now, I do not support the idea that the pro-life movement is 100% comprised of sexists. But it's possible that the philosophy is largely fueled by sexism (and/or anti-sex attitudes), and that other changes in our society just happen to be responding more rapidly to declines in sexism. (Possibly because they are less complicated issues, and the logic of supporting women in things like work and equal pay is more apparent.)

I don't think the pro-life position boils down to, "You all hate women." But I have often found sexism (and/or anti-sex attitudes) to be important aggravating factors (indeed, pivotal aggravating factors) in the pro-life analysis of the morality of abortion. I don't see any other justification for exceptions for rape & incest, for example (which I know the whole the pro-life community does not necessarily accept, but many do), unless you are engaging in sexual moralizing.

LifeChoices said...

If I felt that Saletan was saying, "The movement has a lot of sexism/sexists in it, but it's not just sexism," I would agree. But I believe he's saying, "If this movement was fueled by sexism, it would be declining at a one-to-one ratio with all other issues involving sexism." Which he hasn't proven at all. He hasn't even proven that the other "women's issues" that he's brought up are declining at a one-to-one ratio to each other; why would we think that this (more complicated) issue would decline at such a ratio to any one of them?

To say that something's more complicated than "just sexism" is not to say that sexism doesn't play a serious role in it.

M said...

I can understand everything you said, and I don't think there's enough information to determine the proportion of sexism in the pro-life movement.

I will say, though, that I think there should be an exception for rape, and it has nothing to do with being anti-sex. In case you're interested:

http://blog.secularprolife.org/2012/04/arguing-for-rape-exception.html