Graph: Abortion Attitudes in United States

I have been writing about abortion a lot, recently, so I decided to provide some more context regarding this important subject, by making some graphics. The first graph I created is on trends in American public opinion regarding induced abortion:

(click on the graph for a larger image)

To give an impression of how abortion attitudes have developed in the United States, I created a graph which is shown in figure 1. Using survey data from the General Social Survey (GSS), a nationally representative survey program in the United States, I was able to visualise the policy preferences regarding induced abortion for Americans living in nine different regions ((More detailed state-level aggregation is possible in principle, but the data required to do so are not publicly available)). The available data cover the period from the legalisation of induced abortion in the United States, to 2005. Respondents were asked under which conditions they think it should be possible for a pregnant women to have an abortion. The subsequent conditions were:

  • The woman’s health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy
  • The woman’s pregnancy is a result of rape
  • There is a strong chance of serious defect in the baby
  • Family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children
  • The woman is not married and does not want to marry the man
  • The woman is married and does not want any more children
  • The woman want an abortion for any reason

The graph in figure 1 represents for each of these conditions the proportion of respondents (both men and women) that agreed with each condition. Since the same conditions were asked to respondents every wave of the survey, it is possible to visualise trends over a long period of time.

The graph learns us several things about abortion attitudes in the United States. To start, it is shown that, apart from fluctuations, the overall level of acceptance of induced abortion remained relatively stable in each of these nine regions. Interestingly, much of these fluctuations seem to have occurred during the early 90’s.

Furthermore, it is very clear that two ‘groups’ of responses occur. `Health’ related abortions (woman’s health in danger, pregnancy as a result of rape, defect in baby) have much higher levels of acceptance than ‘discretionary’ abortions (low income, unmarried, no more children, any reason). This is true for each of the nine regions shown. Not all is the same in these regions, however, for large differences between the regions in average levels of accepting abortions are clear, especially with respect to the discretionary abortions. In the Pacific region, approximately 60% of the respondents think that a woman should be able to have an abortion for discretionary reasons, whereas in the E.S. Central region acceptance has been as low as 20% in 2002.

Finally, closer examination shows that that amongst the discretionary conditions, the variation between the different conditions has decreased. For instance, in the Mountain region, we see differences in levels acceptance of almost 20 percentage points amongst the discretionary items (with approximately 40% of the respondents accepting an abortion for any reason, and approximately 60% when the family cannot afford any more children). These differences, however, waned over the years and in 1995 all the four discretionary conditions have very similar levels of acceptance. To a lesser extent, the opposite might have happened regarding the health-related conditions. Whereas the level of acceptance for having an abortion when the mother’s health is in serious danger remained relatively stable in the nine regions, acceptance for having an abortion when the pregnancy is the result of a rape and when there is a serious chance of a defect waned slightly.

Of course, this is only an overview graph, and an overview interpretation of that graph. Nevertheless, I think it provides some interesting insights in the development of the American public opinion on induced abortion.

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