Forty years after the Supreme Court delivered its historic decision on Roe v. Wade, abortion still provokes spirited debate between pro-life and pro-choice factions (note: More is following Gallup’s lead in using the terms pro-life and pro-choice). But recently, say some experts, it looks as if the needle has moved a bit in the restrictive direction.
The General Social Survey—a biennial poll conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, a well-respected, independent research organization—finds that under certain circumstances, people have become slightly less willing to accept women having abortions. In the 1990s, for instance, 83 percent of Americans, on average, felt it was all right for abortions to take place after a woman had been raped; in the 2000s and 2010, that number fell to 78 percent. Similarly, in the ’90s, 45 percent of Americans would have allowed abortions for pregnant women who did not want to marry the father, but now just 42 percent would. Members of every generation have become a little more conservative about abortion than they were 10 years ago, says Clyde Wilcox, PhD, a professor of government at Georgetown University and a coauthor of Between Two Absolutes, an analysis of abortion attitudes.
Why the move toward the pro-life side? One factor may be the growing use of sonograms, which reveal stages of fetal development that most of us had never seen before. Publicity about late-term abortions has also raised the specter of terminating fetuses that are potentially viable outside the womb, a phase that is generally believed to begin at 24 weeks. And there’s been increased acceptance of having children out of wedlock and of raising children with special needs.
Going against this trend are people who have migrated to the pro-choice side. “Personal experience comes into play,” says Kate Cockrill, who studies abortion stigma through a program at the University of California, San Francisco. “There might be folks who have never thought about abortion before and, when pushed to deal with it in their own lives, decided they felt something different than they originally thought they would.” Other women may line up on the pro-choice side when they are struggling financially (six out of 10 women who have abortions are already mothers). And knowing someone who’s had an abortion can tip the scales: Americans with a close friend or family member who has undergone one are significantly more likely to support its being legal or accessible, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
Starting on the opposite page are the stories of 10 women who changed their minds.
Abortion: some facts
- Nearly one in three American women will have an abortion by the time she is 45.
- Among over-40 women, 46 percent of unintended pregnancies end in abortion.
- Women in their twenties account for the majority of abortions (58 percent), teenagers for about 18 percent.
- Catholic women obtain abortions at the same rate as other women.
- Some 90 percent of abortions take place during the first trimester.
- Only 13 percent of U.S. counties have abortion providers. The procedure is most available in the Northeast and the West.
- In 2011, 24 states passed 92 restrictions limiting access to abortion.
- Fifty-two percent of females support laws that require women who want an abortion to see an ultrasound of their fetus.
Pro-Choice to Pro-Life
"A movie about abortion sparked my interest," Kathy Ireland, 49, former model, now CEO and chief designer of Kathy Ireland Worldwide; Santa Barbara, California
When I was growing up, both of my parents were pro-choice. My dad worked for the farmworkers’ union, led by César Chávez, and I spent a lot of time at rallies in support of the grape boycott. My mom was a nurse, and she was taught in training that a fetus is just a clump of cells and that women have a choice about what goes on inside their bodies. I assumed I was pro-choice. I believed, Who am I to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body?
In 1992, when I was 28, I had an audition for a made-for-TV movie about abortion. I don’t remember the name of it. At some point after the audition (I didn’t get the part), I started reading my husband’s medical books—he’s an emergency room physician—and an issue I wasn’t really paying attention to came to the forefront of my mind. I already had some uneasiness about abortion because I saw how having one negatively affected women close to me. In the medical textbooks, I saw that from the moment of conception, a new life comes into being. The complete genetic blueprint is there. The sex is determined, the blood type is determined, and the unique set of fingerprints is determined. That realization changed everything.
I was mortified. I was angry. I didn’t want to be pro-life. I was seeking to have someone give me scientific information that would prove otherwise. The best argument was that the fetus is just a clump of cells, and if you get it early enough, it doesn’t even look like a baby. Coming from a fashion background—and my years of working as a model—I reject giving one human being more value than another simply because of the way someone looks. I think human beings deserve to be protected at every stage of development. And to this day, I remain open: If anyone has any information that the unborn is not a human being, I’ll join the pro-choice side. It would give me a lot of time and energy to put into other areas!
I often lecture at pro-life events, and there are colleagues who tell me, “This could destroy our business.” [Ireland runs a $2 billion lifestyle and design firm.] But it’s absolutely irrelevant if our business goes down the toilet. If one woman decides not to abort her child, my speaking out is worth it. My earlier job description in the last century was, “Shut up and pose.” Today I reject that kind of role.
Pro-Life to Pro-Choice
"The Middle East Changed Me," Tulsi Gabbard, 31, U.S. congresswoman (D–Hawaii); Honolulu
In the last decade, I did two tours of duty in the Middle East with Hawaii’s National Guard. From that vantage point, I witnessed firsthand the tragedy that occurs when a government tries to act as a moral arbiter for its people and does so with the force of law. I saw Iraqi women who were required to cover themselves from head to toe. I remember that on my second deployment, in Kuwait, there was a ban on any kind of celebration by locals or foreigners on New Year’s Eve, because this was a Western unholy holiday. Religious police—undercover agents—would be out in force to make sure there was no piano playing, no music, no fireworks in the Western hotels or anywhere in the country. Typically, these kinds of edicts were backed by guns, fines and imprisonment. Witnessing restrictions touched me to the core.
When I came home to Hawaii, I reflected on the U.S. government’s role in our personal lives. In 2009, I ran for Honolulu city council and won. City council is about potholes and trash and sewers; there are not a whole lot of discussions about social issues and government’s role. But during my election, social issues came up as an important part of the conversation, and that’s where I started to see a connection between governments overstepping their boundaries in the Middle East and the possibility of it happening here. I grew up thinking I personally would not choose to have an abortion and therefore that’s what the government should reflect. My own views, based on Hindu principles, haven’t changed. Hinduism teaches that the individual atman, or soul, is present from conception. What has changed is my conviction about what our government’s role should be in our personal lives. I realized that no government official, bureaucrat, politician or judge should impose his or her moral views on any other individual.
Honestly, it was a struggle to admit to myself that I had been wrong. And I had to tell my parents, who are my best friends. My dad is in the state senate in Hawaii and is on the pro-life side of the abortion debate. It was a huge deal to have that conversation with him and my mother. I put it off for a really long time. But I respect them, and they respect me. My parents are proud they raised my siblings and me to be independent thinkers. They know I am doing what I believe is right.
Pro-Choice to Pro-Life
"College opened my eyes," Angel Armstead, 32, writer; Chaptico, Maryland
I’m from a predominantly liberal, Democratic area. Being pro-choice was the accepted belief in my household. I figured that since women are the ones who are stuck with the baby, we should be the ones to choose. I probably would have considered abortion if I had gotten pregnant as a teenager. I had my own dreams and goals that I didn’t want thwarted.
In college, people challenged my beliefs, especially during my second year—2008—when there was a presidential election. A lot of my friends were Catholic. Most were pro-life. I thought, I should be more open-minded and at least read up on the issue. In my biological-anthropology class, I held the skull of a fetus I’m guessing was three to five months old. I was shocked by how developed it was. It made me wonder what a fetus goes through when aborted. It made me sick to think of inflicting that on anyone.
I went through a hard, slow transition. I don’t like the idea of telling other people what to do. I’m black and Muslim. As a child, I thought the pro-life movement was mostly white and Christian. But on the Internet, I saw that all kinds of people were pro-life. If being pro-life were only about religion, I wouldn’t be so outspoken about it.
In some ways, my decision has made things harder. I know that some pro-life people are judgmental, but I’m annoyed if others see me that way. To me, a true pro-lifer is someone who cares not only about unborn babies
but also about pregnant women who need better resources to choose life.
Pro-Life to Pro-Choice
"I met unwed mothers," Samantha Griffin, 25, program assistant for a nonprofit organization; Hyattsville, Maryland
I received my first sex education in church, from my mom, who was an African Methodist Episcopal youth minister. We were taught that sex is beautiful, sacred and good, but only within the context of marriage. Abortion wasn’t discussed much, but it just wasn’t something we would ever have.
In 2009, I did youth policy work for a nonprofit in the Washington, D.C., child welfare system. Lots of the kids I met had spent their lives in foster care. Often there was a cycle of poverty, abuse or substance abuse—and early parenthood. According to one study, nearly half of all girls in foster care in the U.S. have been pregnant by the age of 19. I saw that when a young woman becomes a parent unintentionally, she often doesn’t have the resources to care for her family in the way we’d all say is ideal. Watching this made me think. What if ending the pregnancy would be a way to make a girl’s life better?
I don’t want to give the impression that I think these young women shouldn’t have had their babies, but seeing them made me really believe in options. I think that we as a society should support the choice to become a mother. But if the woman wants to make the other choice, then she has that right, too, I believe.
By my early twenties, I could no longer agree that a woman should be forced to continue a pregnancy she does not want. In my faith, God values women and their power to make decisions for their own bodies, lives and families.
Pro-Choice to Pro-Life
"During perimenopause I re-examined my past choices," Magnolia Miller, 55, health writer and blogger; Bellbrook, Ohio
When I was 43, I had my third child. It was a powerful experience that opened the door to a period of change in my life. I’d had two children in my thirties, and the third one was my last hurrah. After that, I wasn’t able to get pregnant anymore, and I went into full-blown perimenopause, which prompted some deep soul searching. Not only was my body changing, but so were my emotions and psyche. I was examining everything.
I looked back at all the choices I had made and where they had led me. In my twenties, I had gotten pregnant out of wedlock twice, and it had frightened me. I hadn’t felt adequate to bring a child into the world, so I’d had abortions both times. I started to call myself pro-choice.
But having children changed me. When I look at how much I love them, it affirms my relationship with God. I see life as a gift. Going through perimenopause caused me to think both about life—my new child—and about my mortality, as well as that of my parents. These thoughts impressed upon me that the power of life and death was not in my hands. By the time I was 50, I had become pro-life. I could no longer justify my abortions. It became obvious to me that I had interrupted a cycle of life that was not mine to interrupt.
Pro-Life to Pro-Choice
"My baby could have killed me," Ginger Thew, 48, stay-at-home mom; Oconomowoc, Wisconsin
Early on, my take on abortion was: It didn’t matter to me. I was pro-life; I had no intention of having an abortion. As for everyone else, I could not have cared less.
Then, at 27, when I was 26 weeks along in a pregnancy, I was told that my baby had a rare condition that could cause complications for me.
My husband and I saw a genetic specialist, who tossed out phrases likeDandy-Walker syndrome, worst case we’ve ever seen and 5 percent chance of making it to birth. The baby’s brain was one third the size it should have been, and the fluid around the brain was increasing. “Her head is expanding so rapidly, it is going to eventually crush into your organs,” I remember our doctor saying later.
I looked at my husband and said, “What are we going to do?” I already had three kids who were very young—two, six and eight. My husband turned to me, crying, and said, “Gin, this baby is not going to live. Why are we risking your health to carry it to term?”
We went back to the doctors and were told it was against Wisconsin law to terminate a pregnancy this far along unless my life was immediately at risk. Mine was not, yet, and my doctors would not tell me of any other abortion options. Planned Parenthood finally informed me we could see Dr. George Tiller, in Kansas, for a late-term abortion.
While I was sitting in Dr. Tiller’s office, I realized that medical information had been withheld from me because someone else
decided I shouldn’t know it. And I thought, Who am I to judge someone? After that,
I have been pro-choice.
Pro-Choice to Pro-Life
"I saw a sonogram of my baby," Albany Rose, 21, stay-at-home mom; La Salle, Colorado
Abortion was never brought up in my family until I got pregnant at 15.My dad told me that if I did not get an abortion, I would be kicked out of the house. So I went into the clinic and had it done. For 15 days after that, I didn’t get out of bed. I felt numb and angry, and I didn’t know why, as abortion had seemed to be the best option. Rather than facing what happened, I decided to be pro-choice. I felt that being pro-life, after what I’d done, would have made me a hypocrite.
I became pregnant again at 19. And it was different from the very beginning. My boyfriend was ecstatic, thrilled. He said, “We’re going to make this work.” Then came the eight-week ultrasound. My expectation was that I was going to see a little fuzzy thing, but this was one of the clearest pictures I’ve ever seen. I could see the baby’s head, the stubs of its arms and feet, and the heart beating away, clear as day.
Seeing that not only made the pregnancy more real but also made everything else more terrifying. Because when you see a sonogram, you can’t deny there’s a life. Whether you think it’s human or not is a different story, but it’s obviously alive. Now all I could think was, What happened before? Did I kill something?
The next few months were the hardest of my life. At 16 weeks I felt my baby move for the first time, and at 20 I found out I was having a girl. I’m thinking, I’m going to meet my daughter, and then I’ll know what could have been. I lost a child that I chose to lose. Ultimately I became pro-life with no exceptions for rape or incest.
Pro-Life to Pro-Choice
"I survived a rape," Shelly B., 29, college professor; Round Rock, Texas
When I was in eighth grade in Southern California, my Catholic school showed us a video of The Silent Scream [a 1984 film that dramatizes an abortion from the point of view of a fetus, depicting it as suffering great pain]. I thought, “I can’t believe people are murdering babies.” My teacher told us that abortion ruins women’s lives and that everyone who has an abortion regrets it. I was passionately against abortion and even wrote a letter to the governor of California. “Dear Governor,” I said, “Please stop killing babies. It’s wrong.”
Everything changed when, in 2009, while a graduate student, I was sexually assaulted by a friend. I was terrified that I was pregnant. I had done nothing wrong, and yet this horrible event was threatening to derail my life. I knew I could have the child, but it would wreck me emotionally and ruin my career. I realized I would probably get an abortion if I was pregnant, or at least strongly consider it. It was the first time I ever acknowledged, “I could do this.” It was a huge shock. And that made me question the assumptions I had made about others who did get abortions.
I turned out not to be pregnant, but from that point forward, I was never able to view the issue the same way. I could see what life was like for people who made these decisions. I could no longer believe that abortion was a litmus test for whether you believe in God or are a good person. It changed the whole way I thought about the matter. After the assault, I knew—for some women, having a child is more traumatic than having an abortion.
Pro-Choice to Pro-Life
“Caring for sick relatives made me see how precious life is,” Diane Geiger, 43, Web/media project manager; Detroit
If you had told my 25-year-old self that I would end up identifying as pro-life, I would have said, “No way.” I’m an urban gal, well traveled, adventurous, secular . . . People tend to assume I’m liberal when they meet me and are surprised by my views. But by way of two
Experiences, I stumbled upon what was inside my heart.
In 2008, I began taking care of my dad. He was diagnosed with lung cancer at 82 and beat it, but the stress on his body from the chemotherapy really wore him down. My maternal grandmother, who was 92 and frail, developed ovarian cancer two years later and also needed care. It brought out a lot of love in me, as well as a strong protective urge and a desire to ease their suffering.
I was with them the moment each passed in February2010. Except for having been present when my cat died five years earlier, I’d never experienced death so firsthand. I became conscious of the limited amount of time people have and of the finality of death. My father and grandmother had both been remarkable people with long lives full of love and significant relationships. The more I thought about it, the more I realized: A baby inutero has the same potential. Just because we have the ability to cause conception doesn’t mean it’s OK to cause a death. To end a life before it has an opportunity to draw a breath suddenly seemed unjust, unfair and uncivilized.
Pro-Life to Pro-Choice
"I knew I could never give away a baby," Cate Nelson, 35, restaurant server; Harrisonburg, Virginia
I am one of six girls, all raised by our mom to be pro-life feminists. About eight years ago, I was engaged and accidentally got pregnant. I say “accidentally” because I was on birth control. But my fiancé and I were happy about the pregnancy. And then some things in our relationship changed for the worse. Fifteen weeks into the pregnancy, we broke up.
I faced life as a single mom and pondered giving the baby up for adoption. But I wanted him. Every day I said hello to my unborn child. I realized how strongly women’s bodies push the bonding. I also realized that I couldn’t ask other women to go through their body’s priming just to give their unwanted children away for adoption. The tie is too great. The hormones flooding you, the way your breasts become thick with milk, the way you change each week—all of that should be a wanted task. Children deserve mothers who choose them.
Two days before I gave birth to Lucian, I was driving with my mom and one of my sisters. We started talking about something on the news regarding abortion. I said something like, “Well, I wouldn’t want anybody to have a baby if she wasn’t ready.” They were floored. My sister said, “Cate, how can you say that? You have a baby in your belly!” And I was like, “I think that’s why can say that.” It was finally that moment that made me say, “I’m pro-choice now.”
Millennials: Unexpected Opinions
Americans ages 18 to 30 are the most socially liberal group in the country on matters such as gay marriage and legalized marijuana. But surprisingly, this generation is somewhat less liberal than the total U.S. population on allowing abortions in several specific situations. For instance, 68 percent of millennials support abortion in cases of serious fetal defects, compared with 74 percent of the population as a whole, according to the 2010 General Social Survey. As part of what abortion expert Clyde Wilcox calls “the Juno generation” (after the 2007 hit film about a pregnant teenager), millennials are not quite as distressed about unplanned pregnancies as their parents may have been. And the mainstreaming of special-needs children in schools may make raising these kids seem like a not insuperable problem. Here, two millennials explain their attitudes.
PRO-LIFE I cannot remember a time when I was anything but pro-life. My mom works in the movement, and has for most of my life. I'm the reason behind her activism: At 21, she was pro-choice junior at a Big Ten college and got pregnant. As she says in her lectures, she didn’t have a “compelling reason” for an abortion, and she decided against it when she found ways to get the support she needed. Reading books about fetal development during that time made her realize that life began at conception. After my younger sister was born, it also became a big civil rights issue for her. As I grew up and heard her story, I always identified with the babies in abortion situations. Now that I'm becoming an adult, I can see it from the pregnant woman's perspective.
Everybody who has taken high school biology can see that abortion is the taking of a life; that battle has been won. But why do we still think we need it? What is it that makes these women go looking for a way out? There’s a quote I remember my mom telling me, from writer Frederica Mathewes-Green: “No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.”
Other people can focus on the legal or illegal nature of abortion. I want to help get rid of the trap. —Emily Winn, 19, freshman at Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana
PRO-CHOICE I’ve always had unorthodox views on abortion. In 10th grade, when I heard about Roe v. Wade in AP United States History, it really inspired the feminist, pro-choice advocate in me. Students at my school are about 60/40 pro-life/pro-choice. Some of my peers are semi-pro-choice or say they’re pro-choice but “only if it wasn’t the woman’s fault” or “only if it was rape.” It’s frustrating to me that they claim to support women but have anti-choice views. Even though I’ve never had an abortion, I feel like that’s something that could happen to me. Once a friend tells me she’s anti-choice, I kind of look at her differently. It’s like she’s anti-me. —Graciela Guillén, 18, high school senior, Denver Center for International Studies, Denver