Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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In current usage: the practice of intentionally terminating a pregnancy prior to childbirth; historically, any termination of pregnancy prior to childbirth.

Abortion has occasioned a great deal of religious rhetoric and activity in the United States since the landmark case of Roe v. Wade in 1973. As such, the topic has attracted considerable attention from sociologists of religion.

There have been three general approaches to the study of abortion within the scientific study of religion. Much of the earliest work on abortion has been focused on the discourse of elites: journalists, physicians, governmental officials, judges, and lay activists. In this branch of abortion research, several different themes have merged. Because access to legal abortion has been provided by court decisions rather than acts of legislatures, both sides of the abortion controversy have invoked the language of rights . Because rights are, by definition, basic prerogatives, the casting of abortion discourse in terms of opposing rights (a "right to choose" versus a "right to life") has rendered abortion rhetoric artificially polarized. Moreover, activist-level discourse has emphasized competing notions of women's social roles and alternative world-views concerning sexuality and sexual morality. At the activist level, the abortion controversy has come to crystalize a number of different basic values. Finally, activist-level rhetoric on the pro-life side has become steadily less religious and more secular over time. Arguments about natural law and the meaning of specific scriptural passages have tended to give way to arguments about the humanity of the fetus and the nature of rights and obligations. This secularization of abortion rhetoric may have enhanced the possibility of ecumenical cooperation on this issue, because early abortion activists may have been divided between the Catholic "natural law" rationale for opposition to legal abortion and the evangelical tendency to invoke specific biblical passages. Pro-life activists are less likely to fragment over theological particularism if the abortion debate is cast in the liberal democratic language of competing rights.

A second research tradition on abortion has been concerned with mass-level opinion. This research has suggested that the opinions of ordinary citizens differ qualitatively from those of abortion activists. At the level of the mass public, relatively few American citizens are either unequivocally "pro-choice" or "pro-life" but tend to take varying intermediate positions on the abortion issue. Unlike other issues, this apparent ambivalence does not indicate a lack of sophistication about the issue but reflects the fact that Americans tend to value both the privacy rights of women and the value of the potential life of the fetus. In another contrast with activist-level debate, the relationship between abortion attitudes and attitudes toward women's societal roles tends to be quite weak at the mass level. Also, both religious orthodoxy and religiosity are related to pro-life attitudes, regardless of respondents' denominational affiliation. This relationship poses an interesting agenda for future research, because the same relationship between religious observance and antiabortion attitudes pertains across diverse socialization experiences. Some denominations attempt direct religious teaching about abortion (with such observances as "Human Life Sundays" and so on), others tend to downplay the issue, and a few emphasize the right of a woman to make the final decision about abortion. Some research has suggested that religious socialization has a strong effect on denominational members (particularly Roman Catholics), but that such religious activity tends to stimulate pro-choice countermobilization.

The political effects of the abortion issue have varied over time. For most of the period following Roe v. Wade , the abortion issue was much more salient to those who preferred restrictive policies toward abortion. This asymmetry ended with the case of Webster v. Missouri Reproductive Services in 1989, which permitted states considerably greater latitude in regulating the delivery of abortion services (while retaining abortion as a constitutionally protected right). This ruling was interpreted by both pro-life and pro-choice activists as a clear victory for the pro-life side, and appears to have led to the electoral mobilization of pro-choice citizens. Several studies have suggested that a number of senatorial and gubernatorial races in 1989 and 1990 were decided, in large part, by the abortion issue, with pro-choice candidates faring significantly better than might otherwise have been expected.

One similarly exists between activist-level and mass-level understandings of the abortion issue. In both cases, there has been a convergence of rationales on the pro-life side. Early in the post-Roe period, Catholics who opposed abortion tended to do so because of a respect for the human status of the fetus, while "pro-life" evangelicals tended to emphasize the effects of legal abortion on reducing the risks of nonmarital sexual activity or on increasing the incidence of pre-marital sex. By the 1980s, both groups had assimilated both rationales, with "respect for life" being a somewhat stronger predictor than sexual conservatism. Again, this reduction of religious differences in pro-life rationales has made ecumenical antiabortion activity considerably easier.

Finally, a third approach to the study of the abortion issue has focused on the causes and consequences of "direct action." In recent years, some abortion activists (especially on the "pro-life" side) have engaged in unconventional, sometimes illegal, and occasionally violent activities. These practices have included picketing, "sidewalk counseling," physically obstructing entrances to abortion clinics ("sitting in"), vandalizing the property of abortion clinics, and occasionally murdering or attempting to murder abortion providers. A number of general explanations of such activities have been offered by social scientists. Some have emphasized the role of individual psychological pathologies in accounting for unconventional protest activities. Protesters are thought to be compensating for some personal deficiency (downward economic mobility, individual feelings of inferiority, and so on). Other analysts have focused on the effects of religious beliefs on unconventional activism, arguing that abortion violence is a natural (if not necessarily inevitable) consequence of particular religious commitments. In this style of analysis, it is often argued that people who hold an image of a vengeful, punishing God are much more likely to engage in pro-life violence than are other people. Finally, some have argued that unconventional pro-life activism is an understandable response to an inhospitable political environment. In the aftermath of the pro-choice mobilization that followed Webster , and the election of pro-choice President Bill Clinton (with the probable consequence of preserving a pro-choice majority on the Supreme Court), conventional political activity (voting, lobbying, public education, and the like) has seemed futile to many pro-life activists. Given the very high theological and moral stakes of the abortion controversy, some have elected to take drastic action to limit the incidence of legal abortion. Indeed, several studies have suggested that fewer physicians are willing to provide abortion services since the murders of abortion doctors in 1993 and 1994.

—Ted G. Jelen


D. A. Blanchard, The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Rise of the Religious Right (New York: Twayne, 1994)

D. A. Blanchard and T. J. Prewitt, Religious Violence and Abortion (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993)

P.E. Converse and G. Markus, " 'Plus ca Change . . . ,' " American Political Science Review 73(1979):32-49

E. A. Cook et al., Between Two Absolutes (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1992)

A. Fried, "Abortion Politics as Symbolic Politics," Social Science Quarterly 69(1988):137-154

F. Ginsburg, Contested Lives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989)

M.A. Glendon, Abortion and Divorce in Western Law (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987)

T. G. Jelen, "Respect for Life, Sexual Morality, and Opposition to Abortion," Review of Religious Research 25(1984):220-231

T. G. Jelen, The Political World of the Clergy (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993)

T. G. Jelen (ed.), Perspectives on the Politics of Abortion (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995)

T. G. Jelen and M. A. Chandler (eds.), Abortion Politics in the United States and Canada (Westport,Conn.: Praeger, 1994)

K. Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)

G. Wills, Under God (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).

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