In a study released this month investigating the source of class gaps in unintended births, Brookings Institution researchers found that low-income women are more likely to experience an unintended pregnancy because not only are they less likely to use contraception—they are also less likely to get an abortion.
The study used data from the National Survey of Family Growth to look at 3,885 single women between the ages of 15 and 44 who said they were not trying to get pregnant. Among women who experienced unplanned pregnancies, 31.9 percent of those in the most affluent group had abortions, versus only 8.6 percent of women in the poorest group. The authors attribute this class gap in abortion rates to problems of knowledge and accessibility, citing prohibitive costs for poor women who must pay out of pocket, regulations on abortion providers that have reduced the number of providers, and required waiting periods.
I was surprised to see that one additional explanation was missing from the study: women’s beliefs and attitudes about abortion. Is it possible that poor women are more pro-life than their affluent peers, and that these beliefs also contribute to the differences in abortion rates?
There is some national survey data that suggests this might be the case. For example, one RAND report found that “The higher the education and income levels of a respondent, the more likely he or she is to support the liberal end of the abortion spectrum, and vice versa,” and a 2012 Gallup poll revealed the same trend applies to identifying as pro-choice. When asked if the government should fund abortion services for poor women, those in the lowest income bracket were no more supportive than other respondents, RAND found.
Is it possible that poor women are less likely to get abortions because they are more pro-life than their affluent peers?
In my own qualitative interviews with young women (ages 19-35) in southwestern Ohio I noticed a similar relationship between views on abortion and education level. Only 26 percent of the women I interviewed who had no four-year college degree could be described as pro-choice (which I defined as the view that abortion should be generally available and the woman’s choice without restriction), whereas 53 percent of the college-educated women I interviewed fit into that category. Furthermore, about half of the 26 percent of women with no college degree who were pro-choice qualified their responses by saying that they personally would not consider an abortion, even though they support other women who make that choice, leaving only 11 percent who said that they would consider abortion as an option for themselves personally.
“Abortion, that’s your choice,” one woman said, but then added, “I don’t feel like I would be capable of doing that.” In fact, despite her pro-choice opinions she convinced her sister to keep her baby rather than get an abortion.
Another single working-class woman who described herself as pro-choice explained that that did not mean that she would ever consider an abortion herself: “Personally, for me, I would never do it, ever. It’s sick. If you are going around doing adult things, you should be able to take on the adult consequences.”
This kind of emphasis on personal responsibility was common among high school–educated respondents. “As for abortion, I’m for the most part against it… You should be responsible and take care of [the baby].” “I made the decision to have sex, really, so I got pregnant and I had to deal with the consequences. That’s just being responsible.” “You had a stupid night. It’s kinda your consequence.” “I definitely wouldn’t do abortion…. You know that when you’re going to have sex, there could be a consequence. Like, that’s the whole point of sex, is to reproduce. So, I mean, if that happens, it happens.”
High school–educated interviewees were more likely to exhibit the kind of ambivalence about pregnancy expressed in that last line (“if that happens, it happens”) and that is documented in Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas’ study of poor single mothers, Promises I Can Keep.
And whereas children were usually described as “a blessing” and “the biggest point in life” by the poor and working-class women that I interviewed, abortion was seen as something sad. One single woman wept quietly when telling me about the abortion she had when her youngest children (twins) were still infants. “I didn’t really have a choice,” she said.
For another young woman, abortion created a missing child, a new face on the milk carton in her mind. She accompanied her best friend to the clinic and sat in the waiting room while she got an abortion: “She goes back, you know, and she comes out, and she was just bawling her eyes out. And I know that she thinks about it…. Like, I remember one time she mentioned, like, you know, ‘I could have a one-year-old kid right now.’ And it’s like, it hurt my feelings really bad. I don’t even like to think about it, ‘cause it was like – you know, I would’ve loved that kid to death. It was my best friend’s baby.” Among poor and working-class women, having children in your twenties is the norm and so there are constant reminders—children’s birthday parties, baby showers of friends—of the child that never was.
High school–educated respondents were more likely to talk about abortion with a kind of moral outrage.
High school–educated respondents were also more likely to talk about abortion with a kind of moral outrage. A little over half of the high school–educated women who described themselves as being against abortion made exceptions for rape, incest, and/or the life of the mother—but the other half were against abortion in all circumstances and often cited adoption as a better option.
One single mother told me strongly, “I am 100 percent against abortion. Under no circumstances do I believe that somebody should have an abortion because if you don’t want this child, there’s so many other options…. I mean you could put it up for adoption, it’s that simple. Yeah, your heart’s gonna ache, but so — your heart’s even gonna ache more if you know you’re willingly [going] to kill that child, because the way I believe, the way I was raised is from the time that baby’s conceived, it is a human being. And you don’t kill people, obviously. It’s the way you’re raised.”
Another single mom echoed the sentiment when I asked her about abortion: “Totally against it, I have no respect for anybody that has an abortion, none. You’re taking a life. It doesn’t make you not a mom, it just makes you a mom to a dead baby. One that could have been the person that cures cancer or the next big athlete or the next billionaire or whatever. I’m totally against it.”
It’s worth noting that neither of these women attend church regularly or consider themselves to be religious. For the poor and working-class women I interviewed, abortion was primarily a moral issue, not a religious one. It also was not a political issue. Most women did not voice strong opinions about changing abortion laws, no matter what they thought about abortion.
College-educated women were more likely to see unplanned pregnancy as something that ‘ruins your life.’
Contrast these strong anti-abortion views with those of the college-educated women I interviewed. Many of the college-educated respondents stressed the importance of not judging other women and saw abortion as necessary for women in “dire situations,” like poverty or family instability. (The exception was those college-educated women who regularly attend church and who told me that they were against abortion in all or most circumstances.)
“I’ve never been in that situation, so I don’t—it’s hard for me to judge other people who are.” “If it isn’t a planned thing, if it happens, then I wouldn’t be against somebody getting an abortion.” “In the situation that you can’t raise the kid, either go full-term and put it up for adoption, or have an abortion. I mean, I hate to say this, but the world’s not big enough for billions of people.”
College-educated women were also more likely to see unplanned pregnancy as something that “ruins your life” by interfering with education and career goals.
“Sometimes you’re not ready, and there’s no reason to make somebody’s life miserable. If I was with somebody that I knew I wasn’t going to be with, why torture that person for 18 years? If it’s going to put their plans on hold, why put their plans on hold if it’s something that wasn’t meant to happen? I wouldn’t judge anybody for getting an abortion. I wouldn’t think that they’re bad.”
It’s possible that there is a greater stigma against unintentional childbearing for more affluent women, who are expected by their friends and family to finish college and find a stable job before having children. (A related stat is that 76 percent of adolescents with highly educated mothers indicate that they would be embarrassed by a teenage pregnancy, compared to 61 percent of adolescents with moderately educated mothers and 48 percent of adolescents with mothers who did not graduate from high school.)
Interestingly enough, the poor and working-class women I interviewed were less likely than their more privileged peers to bring up financial instability as a reason for abortion. This may be because it is the norm for them to see other women with few resources raising children and somehow getting by. One waitress explained that she didn’t see money as a reason to get an abortion, “Because I don’t care who you are, if you have a little bit of family your baby ain’t gonna starve…. Yeah, some way somehow you’d be able to provide for your baby.”
Some poor women resented the assumption that they needed to get an abortion and the pressure they felt to do so.
Furthermore, these women told me stories (unprompted) about how they resented the assumption that they needed to get an abortion and the pressure they felt from partners, family, and friends to do so.
“[My boyfriend] mentioned abortion. I said I didn’t believe in it, like, that’s wrong.”
“My mom actually told me to get one [an abortion]. And I got kinda mad at her for that.”
“[Abortion] was never an option. Matter of fact, one of my grandmothers disowned me because I didn’t consider that. My dad’s mom disowned me because I didn’t consider abortion an’ I didn’t—an’ I decided to have [my son]…. She said, ‘You just screwed up your life.’ She’s like, ‘And I just—I can’t deal with my granddaughter, you know, havin’ a baby this young,’ an’ so she disowned me. But it was never an option. It was never, ever an option…. Never. It never crossed my mind, ever.”
“I called my real dad to tell him [that I was pregnant] and it was kind of very insulting, I think. He asked me, ‘Well, are you considering any of your other options?’ And, I was just like, ‘Oh, my God. Don’t talk to me ten years later and then—you don’t know me so you don’t get to ask me those questions. I’m just calling to tell you that you’re gonna be a grandpa. Take that how you will.’ So, yeah, people asked me, but no. Never.”
“Now, with my son, I had more—I actually had more people saying, you know, you need to have an abortion because I had so much goin’, I was tryin’ to work, I was tryin’ to do all this with his dad and, you know, just with all the partying and everything, they were just like you can’t bring a kid into this.”
Despite the social pressure, each of these women carried their babies to term, which suggests that their beliefs about abortion were not just theoretical, but deeply held.
On the other hand, only one woman I interviewed recounted a story about feeling pressure to not have an abortion (one side of her family wanted her to put the baby up for adoption, the other wanted her to get an abortion), nor did anyone bring up accessibility issues, like waiting periods or cost when I asked about abortion.
Of course, with a small sample size like mine (fewer than 100 women, all in the same county in southwestern Ohio) and on such a sensitive topic, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those things aren’t barriers for some women seeking abortion. But if the trend I observed in Ohio holds true in other parts of the country, then “abortion inequality” might not just be about access, but about culture. In that case, increasing the abortion rate among poor women in the name of equality would mean convincing them that abortion is the morally right thing to do—and that would be an ironic place for people who use the slogan “pro-choice” to find themselves.