Most people assume that abortion garners more support from women than men. This is probably because being pro-abortion is seen as a pillar of feminism and calls to reduce abortion limits are usually attacked as being, in some way, a ‘war on women’. As one feminist claimed recently, any stance which seeks to limit women’s access to abortion can very reasonably be opposed on feminist grounds.
It is also presumed that women are more supportive than men of widespread, open-access abortion policies with little or no restriction, as they are the ones most directly affected by it and in ‘need’ of it.
Yet polling data fails to support this narrative.
An intriguing article in the Guardian brought this difference to my attention. It illustrated how polls in recent years show that men are more inclined than women to support more liberal abortion laws.
That article had come hot on the heels of another poll finding that 92 per cent of women think that a doctor needs to see a pregnant woman face-to-face, before signing an abortion notification form, compared to 85 per cent of men.
This difference seems to be counterintuitive, at least to those immersed in (radical) feminist politics.
So, how does it fit with what the polls generally find?
In a 2011 YouGov poll, 28 per cent of men supported a reduction in the gestational limit on abortion but 46 per cent of women did. A year later, a 2012 YouGov poll found that less than a quarter of men (24 percent) supported a reduction, while nearly half of women did (49 per cent). The most recent YouGov survey in 2013 found 19 per cent of men supported a reduction below 24 weeks compared to 37 per cent of women and, of these people, women were more likely to want a much lower limit than men.
In an Angus Reid poll in 2012 35 per cent of men supported a reduction in the limit compared to 59 per cent of women. An ICM poll in 2005 found 45 per cent of men supported a reduction to 20 weeks but 59 per cent of women did. In each case women proved more in support of reducing the limit.
There are similar findings in the US. One Washington Post article reports that of four major polls conducted in 2013 on bringing in a 20-week abortion limit, all showed that women were more supportive of it than men. The Post noted that over the past 20 years there has been little difference between the two genders on this question.
While these differences are marked, and apparently consistent, they are nevertheless not huge, so I am cautious about building too strong a case for the causes. Nevertheless, the differences should surely prompt us to ask some questions about why.
The changing social and cultural context of abortion might give some clues.
Nowadays the risk of pregnancy and childbirth has been mitigated by both the pill and easy access to abortion. There is almost no social stigma associated with women who are sexually active and/or have multiple sex partners. Consequently it appears that any cost to women from being sexually active is both minimal and very similar to the cost to men, as this weekend’s Guardian article shows.
But is this really the case? It can equally be argued that the levelling of the sexual playing field in fact places women at a disadvantage; because when contraception fails, abortion is seen as the answer, and responsibility for that is handed over to women.
Some men can apply (subtle or strong) pressure on their partner to have an abortion as a way of mitigating their own responsibility and to get ‘rid’ of ‘the problem’. (One study found that more than 60% of women felt pressured by others to have an abortion).
But often a man will simply say to his partner: ‘You choose, it’s your body, your choice’, not wanting to apply pressure and possibly assuming that he is being both helpful and supportive.
When the decision is cloaked in terms of choice in this way, many women subconsciously sense that their ability to choose has actually been taken away. They know they now have to take full responsibility themselves for the decision about whether to carry the baby to the abortion clinic or to birth.
To choose to carry a baby to birth leaves them with final responsibility for that choice and, therefore, for the child and for raising and supporting the child.
The decision puts women in a hard place. Inevitably, she will feel it’s her duty to undergo an invasive procedure and an emotional trauma to ‘sort’ the situation out (as Germaine Greer says in ‘The Whole Woman’).
The experiences of two post-abortion women I interviewed for a study illustrate the dilemma:
‘Because he was so unable to take an interest, I had made a decision and I think the circumstances would have been so different if he’d had a better attitude, I might have had confidence to say no [to an abortion].’
If you’d asked my heart at the time, I think I’d have liked a positive response from him, to keep the pregnancy…’
Whilst not wanting to over-generalise, we have to consider the possibility that perhaps women are not always making choices that they really want to make, as men absolve themselves of their responsibility in decision- making. A choice is no choice if there are not equal (supported) alternatives.
So before commentators all too easily accept claims that restricting abortion is a war on women, they should stop to consider whether abortion is really a choice women want to always have to take responsibility for on their own.
But back to the polls. The difference between men’s and women’s attitudes may simply be that women are more sensitive to the fact that pregnancy involves carrying a living baby and therefore is to be treated differently to tooth extraction!
But I also wonder if women are more supportive than men of doctors being involved in the decision, or of limits being tightened, because it is a way of sharing the decision-making burden, or a way of taking the decision out of their hands completely. And perhaps men are more supportive of unrestrictive abortion because it absolves them of their responsibilities?
Readers may well disagree with my analysis. However the fact, surprising though it first seems, that more women want more restrictions to abortion than men requires explanation. Furthermore fundamentalist feminist claims that calls to reduce abortion time limits are an all-out war on women surely now need some re-thinking.
Cross-posted from Philippa Taylor. She has an MA in Bioethics from St Mary’s University College and a background in policy work on bioethics and family issues.