One in three U.S. women will have an abortion in her lifetime — a statistic that’s familiar to the advocates working in the field of reproductive health, but that might surprise many Americans who are less involved in the issue. And this data point might be particularly surprising for the people who consider themselves to be pro-life.
That’s because people who are opposed to abortion are less likely to hear about the abortions that the women in their life have had, compared to the people who describe themselves as pro-choice, according to a new study published in the Sociological Science journal. So abortion opponents underestimate the number of women they know who have had abortions.
Compared to the people who think abortion should be widely accessible, the Americans who oppose abortion under all circumstances are 21 percent less likely to have heard about a personal connection who ended a pregnancy. And the Americans who think abortion should only be allowed in extreme cases — if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, for example — are 12 percent less likely to have heard about someone else’s abortion.
“Women who are having abortions themselves are not going to share this information with people who are going to be judgmental,” Sarah K. Cowan, an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Sociology and the lead author of the new study, said in an interview with ThinkProgress.
This happens with secondhand sources, too. People who hear about a woman’s abortion are less likely to relay that story to anti-choice people in an effort to protect the person who confided in them.
But the same thing does not necessarily hold true for miscarriages. Americans discuss miscarriage more often and with more people than they discuss abortion — even though abortion is actually the more common way that pregnancies end in the United States. Nearly 80 percent of participants said they’d heard about someone else’s miscarriage, compared to just 52 percent of people who had heard about an abortion.
This dynamic could make the one in three statistic sound especially strange to anti-choice Americans, since it doesn’t align with their own experiences. It could also help fuel their opposition to the medical procedure.
There’s an increasingly popular theory that Americans’ attitudes on reproductive rights might start to shift if they have more honest conversations about it on a personal level. A fiercely anti-choice individual might reconsider their position if they hear about a loved one’s abortion procedure, for instance. That’s why, inspired by the movement for LGBT rights, some abortion rights groups have adopted a “coming out” model to encourage women to talk openly about having had an abortion.
Cowan’s study didn’t necessarily prove or disprove the hypothesis that abortion storytelling can shift public opinion in a positive direction. But her results could have important implications for that strategy.
“If it is the case that some people who are opposed to abortion rights would be swayed to become more supportive of abortion rights if they heard that their mother, their sister, their cousin, or their fellow parishioner had had an abortion — there’s this potential for opinion change that’s not happening right now,” Cowan explained.
Reproductive rights experts argue that’s because of society’s deeply entrenched abortion stigma, which leads many women to feel a sense of shame about the extremely common medical procedure, and ultimately prevents some of them from feeling comfortable talking about it at all. The silence around the issue also helps further myths about the nature of the procedure, making it easier for opponents to construe it as graphic or dangerous. That, in turn, makes it easier for lawmakers to pass additional laws restricting access to it.
There are a growing number of advocates working to break this cycle. Organizations like Sea Change and Exhale Pro-Voice are working to build connections between women who have had abortions so they don’t feel so isolated. Student activists are also starting to organize abortion “speakouts” on their campuses to give women a safe space to talk about their experiences ending a pregnancy.
There’s also plenty of space for future research. Cowan is interested in exploring what exactly it might look like if “the veil was lifted” and every American suddenly knew who in their social network has had an abortion. Even beyond public opinion, it’s possible that could end up affecting women’s experiences with confronting an unintended pregnancy.
“I don’t have data, but I can imagine that a woman who finds herself pregnant when she doesn’t want to be approaches that pregnancy differently when she knows that her friend, or her cousin, or her aunt has had an abortion,” Cowan said. “That’s my speculation. I would love to have more information on that.”