What Pro-Lifers Can Learn From the Notre Dame Abortion Survey

The most important takeaway from the survey is that most people’s attitudes toward abortion are nuanced.

Pro-abortion and pro-life activists demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 47th annual March for Life on Jan. 24, 2020 in Washington, D.C.
Pro-abortion and pro-life activists demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 47th annual March for Life on Jan. 24, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (photo: Photo by Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

There has probably been more polling on the issue of abortion than any other public policy issue. Countless polls have asked people to identify themselves as either “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” Other polls have asked about various incremental pro-life laws. Still others have asked whether abortion should be a legal option in different circumstances.  However, last month, Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life released the results of a different type of abortion survey. A team of five sociologists led by Tricia C. Bruce, Ph.D., conducted in-depth interviews with 217 Americans from a wide range of demographic groups. This survey attempts to better explain what motivates American attitudes on the issue of abortion. 

The most important takeaway from the survey is that most people’s attitudes toward abortion are nuanced. Most people are not activists and few invest a significant amount of time thinking about abortion. As such, some respondents who identified as “pro-life” thought that abortion should be a legal option in difficult situations involving rape or severe fetal defects.  Similarly, some who identified as “pro-choice” opposed late-term abortions and strongly disapproved of using abortion as a form of contraception. Individual attitudes were motivated by a range of factors including religiosity and ideology. In particular, personal experiences with unintended pregnancies, adoptions, and miscarriages also often played a key role in people’s opinions. Overall, the survey offers three takeaways that are important to ongoing pro-life educational efforts. 


1. Most People Are Not Particularly Knowledgeable About the Details of Abortion

Few people spend a significant amount of time researching abortion. Many respondents were unfamiliar with basic facts about either fetal development or public policy.  Most had heard of Roe v. Wade but knew little about the ruling beyond the fact that it legalized abortion. Additionally, many were unfamiliar with state laws that regulate abortion. Even though abortion was a very salient issue during the course of the interviews, many respondents distanced themselves from the specifics. Overall, this shows that pro-life educational efforts are important. More information about fetal development might reduce public support for legal abortion.  Additionally, more polling about incremental pro-life laws would be helpful since many are unaware of the permissive nature of abortion policy in the United States.


2. Quality of Life After Abortion Was Important to Many

Many people thought abortion should be a legal option because they feared that children born after unintended pregnancies would be neglected.  Some also thought that women would be adversely impacted by carrying an unintended pregnancy to term.  As such, pro-lifers should continue to publicize our work on adoption. We should also better publicize the life-affirming work done by the thousands of pregnancy help centers in the United States.  Interestingly, it appears that few survey participants even mentioned pregnancy help centers during the course of their interviews.  Furthermore, it appears that few respondents mentioned stories of post-abortion regret when discussing quality of life issues. However, the testimonies of post-abortive women have persuaded many people to oppose abortion.


3. People Do Not Like Abortion

Very few people thought that abortion was a positive decision or as the authors put it, “a desirable good.”  Furthermore, the authors report Americans largely do not approach the issue with “callousness” but instead with “sensitivity.” Even those who supported the legality of abortion found abortion “hard” and “serious.” Many characterized decisions to obtain abortions as “difficult” or “compelled.” Overall, during the survey, the authors frequently heard about the need to prevent difficult circumstances involving finances and relationships that often lead to abortion decisions.  Again, pro-lifers would do well to better advertise the practical and compassionate alternatives that pregnancy help centers offer to women facing unintended pregnancies. 

Overall, national surveys on abortion typically show that anywhere from 40 percent to 50 percent of Americans identify as “pro-life.” However, polls also show that very strong majorities of Americans support incremental pro-life laws such as late-term abortion bans, parental involvement laws, and limits on taxpayer funding of abortion. These results indicate that a significant percentage of Americans dislike abortion, but are not comfortable making abortion illegal.  Successful pro-life outreach to this group of people is the key to creating a durable pro-life majority that will restore legal protection to the unborn.  This recent Notre Dame survey may provide pro-lifers some important insights about how pro-life educational efforts can successfully engage this group of Americans.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor at The Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New

Aaron Baer, President of Center for Christan Virtue, listens to speakers at a pro-life canvasing meeting at Columbus Christian Center in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 4.

Pro-Life Political Setbacks and a Look at Christians in the Middle East (Nov. 11)

The pro-life movement experienced a few setbacks this week in three states’ elections, including in Ohio, where voters decisively approved a ballot referendum that expands abortion access and adds a new right to abortion to the state constitution. We talk to EWTN’s Prudence Robertson about Nov. 7 election results, the latest GOP debate and the formidable challenges the pro-life movement faces ahead. Then we turn to a very different kind of crisis — the one faced by Christians in the Middle East. We talk to Lebanese journalist Elias Turk from EWTN News’ Arabic language news agency ACI Mena about the impact of the Israel-Hamas war on the Christian community in the region.