According to new data from the Pew Research Center, just 16% of Americans think abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. But an additional 24% think abortion should be illegal in most circumstances. With 40% of Americans opposing all or most abortions, the 57% of the population who thinks abortion should be legal has a lot of work to do.
Two recent studies suggest strategies the left can use to change people’s minds about abortion. A common theme underlies both studies: empathy. Opponents of abortion struggle to empathize with the pro-choice stance. Strategies that force them to understand the challenges women seeking abortion face may change minds.
Study Finds Conservatives Don’t Hear About Loved One’s Abortions
According to a 2014 study published in Sociological Science, there’s a simple reason that abortion opponents think people like them don’t have abortions: they don’t hear about loved one’s abortions. Researcher Sarah K. Cowan compared the ways people share stories of abortion and miscarriage. She found that women were more likely to tell a loved one about a miscarriage than an abortion. Women said that fear of abortion stigma factored into their decision.
Cowan also found that abortion opponents were significantly less likely than abortion supporters to hear a story about a loved one’s abortion. This means that the anti-choice man may not hear about the abortion his girlfriend once had to save her life. A husband might go decades without learning that his wife had an abortion in her adolescence. When abortion is something a dehumanized other does, it’s a lot easier to oppose.
Research Shows How to Humanize the Person Behind an Opinion
A study just published in Psychological Science supports the notion that humanizing a debate opponent is a winning strategy for changing minds. Researchers explored the effects of the medium through which a person expressed their opinion. They looked at three issues: abortion, the war in Afghanistan, and the value of rap vs. country music. When study participants heard someone express an opinion with which they disagreed, they were more likely to view the person as “sophisticated” and “warm” when they heard an audio recording or watched a video. Written transcripts were less effective.
This points to the value of seeing that there is an actual human being behind a controversial opinion.
Dehumanization: The Root of the Problem
It’s easy to fight a mythical foe. The right sees women seeking abortions as selfish baby killers who could easily give the child up for adoption. The left sees abortion opponents as paternalistic control freaks who think women should not control their bodies. This dehumanization makes it difficult for either side to convince the other.
Taken together, these two studies point to a clear path for changing minds about abortion. By presenting your opinion in a way that forces the other person to see you as a human being, you’re more likely to make inroads. Scoring debate points, mocking the other side, and getting Facebook likes might feel good.
What feels good is unlikely to work. Abortion clinics across the nation are being regulated out of existence. The Trump administration could be the death knell for legal, safe abortion in this country. Choice supporters can no longer waste time preaching to the choir and mocking the right. To actually change minds—which is the only way to change society—we must be strategic. That means looking for areas of agreement, endeavoring to understand the other side’s position, and then working to help them see the humanity of abortion supporters.
After all, if an abortion opponent can see humanity in a four-week embryo, they must have the capacity to see the humanity of an adult woman facing a difficult decision. It’s up to choice supporters to find a way to unlock that capacity.