Even though it is rather widely known in sociology that individual actions can have unexpected or seemingly contradictory outcomes on the societal level, I always find it highly fascinating to read about such a seemingly paradoxical mechanism. Interestingly, Jelen et al. have found one regarding the attitudes of Catholics on induced abortion.
The Catholic church categorically rejects any practice of induced abortion, and, notwithstanding any issues regarding causality, so do its members. Catholic individuals generally have a negative attitude towards induced abortion, indeed. Jelen et al. were able to replicate this in their study on `abortion attitudes in western Europe’. However, they did not find that the average level of objection against induced abortion in a country correlates with the proportion of catholics in those countries. Furthermore, they even found that when individual level catholicism is taken into account, the higher the number of catholics in the country one lives in, the more positive one is regarding induced abortion.
How is this possible? Can individual and contextual effects of Catholicism on abortion attitudes run in opposite directions? Jelen et al. hypothesize at the start of the article on three possible ways that Catholicism may influence attitudes. The first is that the Catholic church is able to impose pro-life attitudes on its own members. Secondly, it is hypothesized that the presence of Catholics in a country, along with their inculcated pro-life attitudes, influences non-Catholics in such a way, that their opinion also changes towards the pro-life stance. Finally, it is argued that the opposite might also happen: non-Catholics could take the opposite stance to the Catholics in the presence of many Catholics. A counter-mobilization, so to say.
As it was shown by the authors, the first and third hypotheses go: Catholics object against abortion, but when many Catholics are present in a country, it is shown that individuals, net from the effect of Catholicism, generally have a more positive attitude towards induced abortion. Although the authors do not use these words, I think that what they have found can be referred to as a ‘negative spill-over effect’ (spill under?), in contrast with the second hypothesis that is referred to as a ‘spill-over effect’.
Although I think that the authors elegantly present some interesting findings, and did their analyses on the data from the World Value Surveys in a meticulous fashion on the whole, some aspects of their methodology deserve some closer attention. Sure, nowadays we would use a mixed-effects model instead of the ‘flat’ regression the authors used, but remember that this is a 1993 article.
In general, one might ask why the authors only focused on Catholicism. Clearly, this is perhaps the church that must influentially instills its many members with pro-life attitudes, but nevertheless other denominations do so as well. They do however find that Catholics in a predominant Protestant country object against induced abortion the strongest, so on a contextual level attention is paid to other denominations.
What I missed in this analysis, is an estimation of the impact that legislation has on the attitudes people have. Reason for this is the detailed description of the differences between countries on account of whether or not induced abortion is legalized, and under which conditions women can choose to have an abortion. It would be interesting to see whether this has any effect, and whether it interacts with religious conviction.
The seemingly paradoxical finding has been solved: individual and contextual effects of Catholicism on attitudes toward induced abortion run in the opposite direction, caused by a counter-mobilization amongst non-Catholics. Interestingly, the authors discuss this by arguing that the net effect of Catholicism is difficult to assess. I wonder if the individual Catholic, expressing the pro-life stance he or she wholeheartedly beliefs in, realizes that these efforts may indeed unexpected, and unintended, consequences by instilling pro-choice attitudes amongst non-Catholics.
Jelen, T.G., O’Donnell, J., Wilcox, C. (1993). A Contextual Analysis of Catholicism and Abortion Attitudes in Western Europe . Sociology of Religion, 54(4), 375-383.