Pew Research Abortion Survey Shows Role of Religion in Abortion Debate
This article was first published in the State of the Faith Newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox every Monday evening.
When news broke last week that Politico had obtained a leaked version of a Supreme Court opinion showing Roe v. Wade could be canceled soon, my brain has gone into reporter mode. I started brainstorming a list of related stories I could write, including some quick results featuring survey data on abortion.
At the top of this list was an overview of what members of major religious groups think about abortion rights. I thought such a story would be easy to write and would do well in terms of page views.
After spending the first half of the week helping with initial Deseret News coverage of the leak, I took some time on Wednesday to dig into the data. And like magic, I got an email from the Pew Research Center that day saying they had a major new abortion survey they were about to release.
That afternoon, I received a pre-release copy of the report and started reading it right away. Sure enough, it included a section on religious groups and a chart showing the share of Protestants, Catholics and “noes” who have varying opinions on abortion.
But the Pew report also included a section on religion that I hadn’t expected, one that stopped me in my tracks. The researchers wrote that while most white evangelicals cite their faith as an important influence on their opinion, the same is not true for many other people of faith.
“Catholics are significantly less likely to say religion is important in shaping their views: 41% say it is important, including 21% who say it is important. extremely important. And non-evangelical white Protestants are even less likely to link religion to their views on abortion,” the report says.
In other words, many Catholics and mainstream Protestants are turning to other sources, including their political party or social network, for answers about the abortion debate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same is true for Americans with no religious affiliation; only 7% of non-respondents say that religion plays a “very” or “extremely” important role in shaping their views on abortion.
These results show that a denomination-by-denomination breakdown of abortion data is less useful than it first appears. Of course, this provides a basis for discussion, but it does not capture the full complexity of the role of religion in the abortion debate.
For some people of faith, religious teachings are really the main reason they oppose or support abortion rights. But for many others, religion is a kind of red herring, leading people to make wrong assumptions about how they feel.
In the end, I decided to skip my original story idea and take my story about Pew’s new investigation in a different direction. I wrote about the under-discussed middle ground in the abortion debate and why labels like “anti-abortion” can be misleading. I hope I have grasped at least a little of the nuance revealed in the report.
But in case you’re still curious (and I don’t blame you if you are), I’ve rounded up the results for religious groups below. Here’s what Pew discovered about Protestants, Catholics, and nons:
- White evangelical Protestants are notable for their opposition to abortion rights. Only 24% of members of this faith group say abortion should be legal in all cases (5%) or mostly legal (19%).
- Although the Catholic Church is associated with the defense of abortion, people in its pews have mixed opinions about the procedure. Fifty-six percent of Catholics say abortion should be legal or mostly legal, while only 10% say it should be illegal in any case.
- People unaffiliated with religion – a group that includes atheists, agnostics and those who describe themselves as “nothing in particular” – are the most supportive of abortion. More than a third of non-religious people say abortion should be legal in all cases and a further 51% say it should be mostly legal.
For a more in-depth look at the role of religion in the abortion debate, see my story 2019 on the subject with commentary from a range of religious leaders and scholars.
Fresh off the press
Term of the week: Backpressure
Tucked away in the new Pew report was a term I had never encountered before: cross-pressure. It refers to a situation in which someone simultaneously holds two or more opinions that appear to be in tension.
The Pew team argued that “cross-pressure” is a good way to describe many people’s views on abortion, as pro-abortion rights supporters generally also support various limits on the procedure and opponents generally oppose a complete ban.
“Relatively few Americans on either side of the debate hold an absolutist view of the legality of abortion, whether they support it or oppose it at any time, regardless of the circumstances,” the report said. .
What I read…
Ever since Politico released a leaked draft of what could become the majority opinion in the Supreme Court abortion case, I wonder where they got it. Did a conservative clerk share the project to put pressure on the initial majority to stick together? Or did it come from the liberal side in an effort to shake things up? Tom Goldstein analyzed the situation for SCOTUSblog and shared a compelling overview of what we know so far.
If the Supreme Court really overturns Roe v. Wade, the decision could disrupt the political landscape. Religious groups that have long partnered with the Republican Party to oppose abortion rights could form new partnerships with Democrats to expand the social safety net. In his Religion News Service column, the Reverend Thomas Reese urges Catholic leaders to consider such a change and “divorce” the GOP once and for all.
My friend Mitchell Atencio, editor of Sojourners magazine, recently wrote a great essay on what Twitter means to him.
I was a panelist for a virtual event last Thursday on religion, abortion and Roe v. Wade. Please watch the recording of the chat and let me know what you think!
Are you looking for an idea for a stay? Try to visit all the churches in your town.
The American Enterprise Institute is hosting a literary event with Christine Emba, author of “Rethinking Sex: A Provocation,” on May 17. I loved the book and hope you will consider logging on virtually.