Science changes, as does the way scientists report on their work. Reading a 1971 article in Science, on attitudes towards induced abortion, I was truly amazed by the sheer amount of apparent activism that might have influenced the interpretation of the findings. Let’s have a look.
First I must say, that the actual research seems pretty solid, as might be expected when reading an article published in Science. Perhaps the only serious criticism would be that several different surveys were used to be able to investigate a trend analysis. Nevertheless, since this is an article already 37 years of age, is provided valuable insights in how processes of public opinion evolved relatively long ago. Often, this is difficult to assess with the survey data available to present-day researchers.
As the title indicates, the focus of the research is on the development of attitudes towards abortion in the ’60-’70 decade in the United States. During those years, American women in various states had different levels of access to legal abortion. Using data from Gallup Polls primarily, she investigates to what extent people will allow a women to have an abortion, under different circumstances. Legalised abortion is most strongly supported by non-Catholics and the higher educated. Also, Blake found that levels of support have increased rather sharply in the ’60-’70 decade.
Also men seem to hold more liberal attitudes on this subject, for which she gives a fascinating explanation: men, especially in the higher social strata, would like to uphold their sexually liberal lifestyle, and see the possibility of women having an abortion as a safeguard for the woman having a child for which they should care at least financially. In other words: these high-SES men anticipate on the (potential) benefit they might gain from women being able to have an abortion. Although Blake does not actually test this conception, I think the general notion of people founding their opinions on their own personal situation is an interesting one that deserves further investigation.
The political involvement
I was more intrigued, though, by the way Blake positions the abortion debate as a debate of personal liberty: “In Western countries as well as elsewhere the history of population policy has, with few exceptions, been a chronicle of government efforts to repress birth limitation and reward reproduction.” She is clearly anticipating on an abortion-case dealt with by the U.S. supreme court, for she argues that despite the high levels of disapproval also other issues were changed by the Supreme Court that also faced high levels of disapproval in the general public:
If we consider just two of these — the insistence of the Supreme Court on the disestablishment of religion in public schools, and on rapid school integration — we have a more objective and realistic standard against which to judge the relationship between public opinion and abortion legislation.
To this she adds that for social change to occur, especially the powerful groups are of importance. So, instead of the aggregate overall disapproval in United States society, she argues that change might very well be expected when we only look at the higher levels of approval amongst the higher educated and those with higher income.
One must admit that history proves Blake right: only two years after this research has been published state-level abortion legislation was banned by the Supreme Court. From 1973 onwards, all women in the United States were able to have a legal abortion if they decided needing one.
Nevertheless, I do feel that it was Blakes’ political commitment speaking, rather than a strong empirical basis, when she made her predictions. Two examples of a court case that contradicted general levels of public opinion do not allow a generalisation of other issues (other than the argument that it is possible under certain circumstances). More importantly, where she rightfully argued not to look at the general levels of approval, but at approval amongst powerful groups, she did not do so in her comparison of the abortion issue with other court rulings where she only mentions general levels of approval.
So, all in all, I do feel that this is a well performed, valuable study as long as it comes to the empirically based findings. Also, though untested, she provides an interesting new hypothesis. But, I cannot help but feel that nowadays this study, with the sheer amount of apparent activism influencing the interpretation of the findings, would not be published easily. Not in Science.
J. Blake (1971). Abortion and Public Opinion: The 1960-1970 Decade Science, 171 (3971), 540-549 DOI: 10.1126/science.171.3971.540