On Wednesday, Louisiana joined four other states — Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio — in enacting a law banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. These laws, often referred to as heartbeat bills, ban abortion before many women even know they are pregnant.
Although federal courts have blocked Kentucky, Mississippi and most of Indiana’s laws from taking effect, Alabama and Missouri have criminalized abortion, apparently intending to offer the Supreme Court a chance to overturn Roe v. Wade.
In response to this wave of state legislation, many women have been sharing their own reproductive health stories. Late-night TV host Busy Philipps shared her story about having an abortion as a teenager and started the hashtag #YouKnowMe. Many women have since used the hashtag to tell their own stories and bring awareness to the fact that about 1 in 4 women will have an abortion. Those include elected officials, too. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) did so on Twitter. During the Georgia legislature’s debate over its bill, state Sen. Jen Jordan spoke passionately about how, despite losing and grieving eight pregnancies, she believes the decision belongs to a woman and her doctor.
Many women explain their support for abortion rights by telling their experiences with pregnancy. Which raises the question: Does pregnancy shift a woman’s views on abortion?
How we conducted our research
To help answer that question, we surveyed 790 women online in March through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Although Mechanical Turk does not provide a nationally representative sample, its affordability makes it an important resource for social scientists, and it has been used in studies about pregnancy loss.
There is some risk that women with the strongest-held opinions will take the survey, but the anonymity of Mechanical Turk may also allow people to answer honestly about a sensitive subject. The top-line results of our survey align with recent surveys on abortion attitudes from the Pew Research Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation.
We asked respondents if abortion should be legal or illegal under four circumstances: if the mother’s life was in danger; if the fetus had a serious defect; if the mother could not afford to support the child; and for any reason at all. Consistent with other national surveys, support was highest for abortions when the life of the woman was at risk or when the fetus had a serious defect.
Respondents were also asked whether they would support overturning Roe v. Wade; adding further restrictions to Roe; keeping Roe as it is; loosening current restrictions; or making all abortions legal. Just over 30 percent of respondents either wanted more restrictions to be added to Roe or wanted the ruling overturned.
Women also answered questions about how many times they had been pregnant and the outcome of each pregnancy. The question order was randomized so half the sample answered pregnancy questions before they answered questions about their attitudes toward abortion, while the other half answered in the reverse.
If women’s experience does influence their beliefs about abortion, then those who were asked about their pregnancy histories before being asked their views about abortion should express different opinions from those who were asked about their pregnancy histories after.
Women’s personal experiences influence their opinions about abortion.
When asked about their pregnancy histories first, women were eight percentage points more likely to support abortion under any circumstance than the women who were asked about their pregnancy histories after answering questions about abortion, by 59 percent compared with 51 percent. Women asked first about their pregnancy histories were nine percentage points more likely to support Roe v. Wade, by 79 percent to 70 percent.
Women asked about their pregnancy histories first — and if they said they had been pregnant — were also more likely to support abortion if there was a severe fetal defect. Women who had never been pregnant showed similar levels of support regardless of question order.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, women who have had an abortion are much more likely to support expanding abortion rights. They expressed greater support for abortion under all four circumstances, by 63 percent to 40 percent, and were more likely to support Roe v. Wade, by 90 percent to 71 percent.
Our results do not negate what we already know about how people form views on abortion. In our sample, religious affiliation and political ideology remain strong predictors of views about abortion. Survey respondents who identified as Christians and Republicans were less likely to support abortion, regardless of their own pregnancy histories. But even controlling for these well-known predictors of abortion views, women’s personal experiences still seemed to matter.
What we don’t know
Even though we compared the abortion attitudes of women with various pregnancy histories, we do not know whether being pregnant caused a change in these attitudes. Women who are more likely to support abortion rights may be less likely to become pregnant for any number of reasons. For example, they may be more likely to use contraceptives.
What’s more, when reminded to think about their own pregnancy histories, women were more likely to support abortion rights. We don’t know whether this issue remains salient for women when they are voting.
Eleanor Schiff is a visiting professor of political science at Bucknell University.