In the United States, no topic is more divisive than abortion. Both pro-life and pro-choice defenders are fervently passionate about their position and will dismiss the other swiftly.
In my continued pondering of this issue, a thought struck me concerning the very nature of this debate: it’s not really about abortion. Before the reader slings an insult or astounding response, allow me to explain further.
The core of the pro-life position is that life begins at conception. Since abortion terminates a pregnancy, it must be concluded that abortion is akin to ending a life. Because it is the parent’s choice to end the life, abortion is argued to be similar to murder causing those who agree with this position to claim it needs to be illegal.
In the other corner, the pro-choice position centers on the bodily autonomy of the pregnant individual. They believe that a person has an inalienable right to dictate how their body is used. Therefore, abortion should be legal because outlawing it would break someone’s right to bodily autonomy.
With this debated so publicly and ardently argued, one would expect that the rhetoric is developing and therefore, one side should be recruiting more than the other. However, this debate doesn’t appear to be bearing either position any fruit according to nearly 50 years of data from Gallup.
In 1976, when the poll was first conducted, 20% of people felt that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances, 22% felt it should be legal under all circumstances, and 54% felt it should be legal only under some circumstances. Subsequent polls show that these numbers have stayed relatively flat, and the most recent results from 2020 reported 21% claiming it should be fully illegal, 29% saying it should be fully legal, and 50% saying it should be legal under some circumstances.
So, the pro-choice position seems to be trending up overall, but it’s also been decreasing steadily since the 1990s. The pro-life and midway positions have barely changed at all. When one looks at who identifies as pro-life and pro-choice, the fight seems even less successful.
Drawing from the same Gallup survey, 47% of respondents identified as pro-choice, and 44% as pro-life in 1998, and even more so these numbers stay flat, crossing at times but ultimately returning to similar points. The data from 2020 reported 48% as pro-choice and 46% as pro-life.
If the debate doesn’t change any minds, then why do people still have it?
In my opinion, it is because the purpose of the debate is not to convince someone to become pro-life or pro-choice but to signal, to wave a banner of one’s political allegiance. It becomes even clearer when one examines the philosophies further.
This debate could already be doomed to convert none because the underlying questions being supported by each do not match. Truthfully, pro-life and pro-choice supporters seem to be shouting at each other about different topics entirely while believing they are refuting the other.
If one breaks down the pro-life position to its fundamental questions, what they are trying to answer is ‘what is a life?’, ‘what makes something alive?’, and ‘is the termination of life bad?’
For pro-choice, they are ‘what is bodily autonomy?’, ‘how much authority does one have over their body?’, and ‘can other living things affect authority over one’s body?’
These fundamental questions can be related, but they do not directly contradict each other. This causes the conversation to become circular and never address these fundamental questions.
Because of this conflict, the dialogue of this debate is similar to a group arguing that unicorns are horses, while the other responds that horses should be able to mate with narwhals (that would assumedly create a unicorn). Sure, both are concerned about unicorns in some way, but they won’t go make much progress recruiting to the pro-unicorn or pro-horse side.
The abortion debate simply can’t be about changing minds when the two sides don’t address each other and they are demonstrably ineffective at doing so. However, the debate does show who is vocally a member of which side of the political aisle.
A person claiming they’re pro-life or pro-choice is similar to them cheering for their favorite sports franchise. By chanting for or wearing merchandise of their team, they signal to others around them that they identify with that franchise and support what they do.
The biggest example of this comes from US federal politicians. Despite many openly identifying as pro-life or pro-choice (with various subsets among them), very few, if any, have openly advocated for fully legalized or fully criminalized abortion.
Abortion legislation tends to be limited to state legislatures, with attempts at full bans coming only within the last few years (in 2019, Alabama passed a full ban and six other states attempted “heartbeat bills” all of which were blocked by federal judges) and temporary ones in some states that considered abortions “nonessential” during the pandemic.
For politicians at the top, it’s more important to proclaim their abortion stances as a symbol of their solidarity with their supporters. Declaring pro-life or pro-choice status primes their constituents to think of them as a part of the same team.
For the everyday citizen, claiming a position shows that one is a part of their group and not the other one. It is a way to confer one’s status of identifying with their political group.
This is the true purpose of the abortion debate. It is the use of signals and symbols to declare one’s identity. The debate is merely a mask for a complicated rendition of “go team, go!”