Gender Role Beliefs and Attitudes toward Abortion: A Cross-National Exploration 1

By Jelen, Ted G. | Journal of Research in Gender Studies, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Gender Role Beliefs and Attitudes toward Abortion: A Cross-National Exploration 1


Jelen, Ted G., Journal of Research in Gender Studies


The abortion controversy stands as one of the most contentious issues of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The question of whether, or under what circumstances, a woman should be permitted to terminate a pregnancy intentionally constitutes what Staggenborg (1994) has characterized as a "condensational symbol." The issue of abortion is controversial in a number of national and international settings, and entails considerations of the sanctity of human life, sexual morality, and the appropriate political role of religion, among others.

At the level of elite discourse, one important aspect of the abortion issue is the effect that reproductive freedom (or its absence) has on gender equality.

Proponents of legal abortion often argue that control over one's fertility is essential for full gender equality (see, for example, Luker, 1985; McDonagh, 1996, Feree, 2003; Colker, 1989). By contrast, limits on the availability of abortion are considered important in order to maintain the status and importance of traditional gender based divisions of labor (Luker, 1985). However, a number of empirical studies of public opinion have shown that attitudes toward egalitarian or traditional gender roles are weak, inconsistent, or insignificant predictors of abortion attitudes (Cook et al., 1992; Jelen, 2014; Lynxwiler and Gay, 1996; Stricker and Danigelis, 2002; Bolzendahl and Mays, 2004).

This set of findings is important, because there is ample reason to believe that public opinion on abortion may have an effect on public policy. Abortion is an "easy" issue (Carmines and Stimson, 1980) on which mass publics are likely to have coherent opinions (Converse and Markus, 1979). Indeed, Killian and Wilcox (2008) have shown that abortion is among those rare issues which, in the United States, can alter individual partisanship. Rossi and Triunto (2012) have shown that public opinion in Uruguay was related to the liberalization of that country's abortion laws, while Jelen and Bradley (2014) have shown that gender role attitudes tend to be weak predictors of abortion attitudes in nations whose abortion laws are highly restrictive.

The purpose of this exploratory analysis is to investigate the sources of this disjunction between elite-level discourse and mass opinion. Why should a central element of the discourse of scholars, journalists, and political activists appear to have such a peripheral impact on the attitudes of ordinary citizens?

This study will address two general hypotheses:

H1: The relationships between gender role attitudes and attitudes toward abortion will be reduced by a lack of cognitive sophistication on the part of some respondents.

It has long been known (Converse, 1964; Zaller, 1992) that political affairs generally are less salient to ordinary citizens than to political elites, and that the level of factual knowledge, consistency, and sophistication exhibited by mass publics varies enormously. Put simpl y, the cognitive connection between gender role attitudes and support for or opposition to legal abortion may simply not be apparent to many people to whom the issue does not seem particularly important.

A second hypothesis suggests that the effect of gender attitudes on abortion opinion may be contingent on other considerations:

H2: The relationships between gender role attitudes and attitudes toward abortion will be reduced by respondent characteristics which produce cognitive cross-pressures.

That is, even among respondents who see the relevance of access to abortion to female equality, support for legal abortion among gender role egalitarians may be mitigated or superseded by other variables. For example, Luker (1985) has shown that, among women who engage in overt political activity on the abortion issue, there is an important difference between full-time homemakers and women who participate in the paid labor force. Thus, a housewife who values gender equality may come to oppose abortion because of the status she attaches to her occupation. …

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