People who are anti-abortion are significantly less likely to know that their relatives or friends have had an abortion than people who support abortion rights, according to a study published Monday in the journal Sociological Science.
Furthermore, that lack of knowledge is probably influencing their perceptions and attitudes about abortion, suggests Sarah Cowan, the author of the study and a sociologist at New York University.
“Abortions are often kept secret both by women who have had them and by their confidants,” says Cowan in a statement released with the study. “Moreover, abortions are especially likely to be kept secret from those who are pro-life. These disclosure differences affect who hears about others’ abortions and may help explain the relative stability of Americans’ opinions on abortion.”
Americans’ attitudes toward abortion have indeed remained remarkably consistent over the years. In 2013 — the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision, which established the constitutional right of women to have an abortion — a Pew Research survey found that a strong majority of Americans (63 percent) do not want that court opinion overturned, while 29 percent do.
Those percentages, the Pew researchers noted, have changed little from surveys taken 10 and 20 years ago.
Cowan’s study was designed to examine how and when we reveal secrets to each other and how those patterns of telling or not telling shapes social change.
“In everyday life, we hear about the lives of those we know, and we are, in turn, influenced by what we hear,” she writes in the introduction to her study. “But sometimes secrets are kept from us. If what we hear and what is kept from us is patterned, then we will be systematically exposed to some influences and not others. This will have implications for all the arenas in which social influence occurs: knowledge, attitudes, norms, and behavior.”
Cowan wanted to test three hypotheses about secret-telling in her study: 1) the less stigmatized a secret, the wider the number of people who hear about it, 2) people who hold positive attitudes toward a characteristic of a secret are more likely to be told it, and 3) the more stigmatized a secret, the less likely people will reveal it to persons they believe will “punish” the person whose secret it is.
She chose the topic of abortion and miscarriage to test these hypotheses. “Miscarriages and abortion are both common events that end pregnancies, are usually concealable, and are experienced by millions of diverse women (many of whom experience both events),” she explains.
Yet, although abortion is more common than miscarriage in the United States (20 percent of recognized pregnancies end in abortion, while 13 percent end in miscarriage) these two types of pregnancy losses different significantly in regard to social stigma.
Research has shown that “despite its widespread prevalence, stigma concerning abortion is dramatic and more severe than stigma concerning miscarriage,” Cowan points out. “Women are disinclined to disclose their abortion histories and perceive strong social disapproval in nearly every context.”
For her study, Cowan surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,600 American men and women. She asked them about their knowledge of others’ and their own (or their partner’s) experiences with abortion or miscarriage.
The survey found that people who believe that abortion should not be legal under any circumstances are 21 percent less likely to have heard about a person in their social network having an abortion than those who support abortion rights.
In addition, people who believe that abortion should be legal only in the cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the pregnant woman are 12 percent less likely to have heard about someone they know having an abortion.
“Holding these attitudes is one of the largest predictors of reporting knowing someone who has had an abortion,” Cowan writes.
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To make sure those results didn’t merely reflect the fact that people who are anti-abortion are less likely to associate with people who have had an abortion, Cowan controlled for such factors as religion, political party affiliation, religious service attendance, race and age. The findings still held.
The survey also found that miscarriages were much less likely than abortions to be kept a secret — from anyone. According to the survey, 77 percent of women and their partners who experience a miscarriage reveal that experience to someone else. That compares to 66 percent who share their abortion experience. In addition, the news about a miscarriage is revealed to an average of 2.63 people, while that about an abortion is told to an average of 1.24 people.
The combination of all of these findings supports Cowans’ three hypotheses about stigmatized secrets. But they also tell us a great deal about how women in the U.S. share their abortion experiences.
“A third of women who have had an abortion have kept it a secret from someone with whom they usually talk about personal matters,” says Cowan in the press release. “In addition, one quarter of confidants also keep the secret. Abortions are predominantly kept secret from immediate family members. People keep abortions — their own and others’ — a secret for reasons of privacy and to protect the women who had the abortion from stigma.”
Contact often changes attitudes
The “contact hypothesis” — the observation that when individuals come into contact with a stigmatized group, their prejudice against that group tends to decrease — suggests that if more people who are anti-abortion were to learn about the abortion experiences of their relatives and friends, their attitudes toward abortion might change.
Indeed, a small, unpublished study recently found that to be true.
Some of the participants in Cowan’s study also reported that their opinion about abortion had changed due to personal contact. “I am dear friends with many who have had abortion. … I understand why many choose … abortion,” wrote one woman to explain why her support of abortion rights had increased.
And, of course, as Cowan points out, we’ve recently seen a dramatic example of how personal contact can change public opinion: the recent rapid change in attitudes toward gay rights. Scholars believe that those attitudes liberalized as more and more Americans realized that individuals they knew — and loved — were gay.
You can read Cowan’s study in full at Sociological Science’s website.