Research Clarifies How Personal Beliefs Inform Public Discussions
Abortion is a unique issue of deep personal conviction prompting vigorous public debate.
This was true even before Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization (2022), in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
With Dobbs the high court returned the power to legislate abortion to the states.
Consequently, unlike other points of public contention, the legality of abortion raises sensitive and emotional personal issues involving beliefs, attitudes, morality, and faith.
Personal Conviction and Public Opinion
According to Pew research, a significant amount of American’s have given serious thought to the issue of abortion. Accordingly, there are a wide range of opinions.
Some embrace the anti-abortion biblical view supported by numerous passages of Scripture, ("You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb" — Psalm 139:13; "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you" — Jeremiah 1:5).
Others believe abortion should be the choice of a woman, not the government, with differing views of how far along in a pregnancy it should be permitted.
Many Americans hold beliefs that fall somewhere in the middle, often qualified by the nature of the acts leading to the pregnancy (such as incest or rape), or the health of the mother.
Abortion laws share common ground with all other laws to the extent that all laws are based on principles of morality.
This is especially true with criminal laws, a field within which this writer has practiced both as a defense attorney and a prosecutor for over 25 years. But unlike laws criminalizing crimes of violence or property crimes, the decision whether to end a pregnancy is a very different calculation.
Research corroborates this distinction.
Abortion and Emotion
The emotional aspect of abortion is reflected through research examining social expressions of personal belief. Evangelos Ntontis and Nick Hopkins (2018) explored how activists frame abortion as a social problem.
They specifically considered how campaigners, both pro abortion rights and anti-abortion, portrayed women choosing to abort, and the variety of ways emotion was featured in the representation of social actors.
Michal Bilewicz et al. (2017) examined how terminology used within the abortion debate reflects attitudes and beliefs. Recognizing that language shapes and reflets cognition and attitudes, they analyzed how using the terms "fetus" and "unborn child" reveals attitudes about abortion as well as "(de)mentalization" of the preborn.
Consistent with other research, they found, among other things, that differing opinions about abortion was mediated by what they describe as the "emotionality ascribed to the preborn."
Kate Greasley (2012) examined the issue of postabortion regret, concluding, among other things, that experiencing regret based on past decisions is often decoupled from thoughts about moral or rational justification.
She views regret as an unsuitable measure for justification due to specific features of reproductive decisions, as compared to other fields of decision-making.
Framing the Future
Understanding the emotional underpinnings of the abortion debate, fueled by both public opinion and personal conviction, can facilitate understanding and provide context informing and hopefully prompting productive discussion about issues involving both legality and morality.
This article was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick, JD, MDiv, Ph.D., is an award-winning career trial attorney and media commentator. She is host of "Live with Dr. Wendy" on KCBQ, and a daily guest on other media outlets, delivering a lively mix of flash, substance, and style. Read Dr. Wendy L. Patrick's Reports — More Here.
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