Is there a middle ground on abortion?

In reality, Americans’ views on abortion are complex. A majority support federally guaranteed access – but with limits.

Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
Protesters demonstrate for and against abortion rights outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on May 6.

When Monitor reporters Jessica Mendoza and Samantha Laine Perfas packed their bags for Louisiana, they knew they were about to wade knee-deep into one of the nation’s most rancorous debates. 

It was 2019 and it looked like the question of reproductive rights might once again reach the U.S. Supreme Court. The reporting team had set their sights on Louisiana because state lawmakers had taken an increasingly restrictive approach to abortion access. Once on the ground, Sam and Jess quickly discovered that the debate was not nearly as black and white for individuals as the rhetoric suggested.

“Most of the time when you talk to people it’s not immediately pro and anti,” Jess says. “There’s a lot of space in between. ... Sometimes that spectrum gets lost in the conversation.”

At the national level, the discussion is typically framed in stark terms, in which people fall into one of two camps: abolitionists, who oppose any abortion as a violation of the sanctity of life; and absolutists, who believe that abortion should be available to anyone who needs one, regardless of circumstance. 

“Nationally it’s difficult to have a nuanced conversation because it can be easier to just put people in boxes,” Sam says.

As Americans wait to see how the Supreme Court rules in Dobbs v. Jackson, emotions – and legislation – are running hot. A draft opinion, first published by Politico, indicated that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and a related opinion, 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, would likely be overturned. The leaked draft rules that there is no constitutional right to an abortion and places the decision-making back in the hands of state legislatures. 

Thoughtful conversation on the issue has always been hard to come by, but never more so than following this leak. 

In reality, Americans’ views are complex. They overwhelmingly support retaining some level of federally guaranteed access to abortion by 2-to-1, recent polls show. Only about a quarter, however, say that right should be entirely unrestricted, while only 12% say the practice should never be allowed.

Yet many Americans with mixed views are reluctant even to broach the topic. “I think that’s because they know that, depending on who they’re talking to, they could be judged,” Sam says.

Indeed, the public debate often devolves into demonization. “Typically people who identify with one part of the movement will use terms for people that they oppose in ways that those people might not appreciate,” says Jess. “That’s hard if there’s no set of terms that everyone agrees on ... to have a productive and constructive conversation.”

Finding political middle ground will require individuals to overcome this rhetorical dichotomy and reluctance to listen to each other. “I understand why people don’t want to talk about it,” Sam says. But if there is any hope of healing this rift, we need to brave these difficult conversations “with compassion and empathy.”

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