Public Release: 

Women's Perspective On Abortion More Complex Than Earlier Thought

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, Ill.-- A new study finds that women's attitudes toward abortion and toward media depictions of abortion are far more complex than previously thought. Social class, for example, both links and divides women's views on the controversial issue, and television representations of abortion are well received by some groups of women, strongly resented by others.

The researchers, Andrea Press and Elizabeth Cole, also find that the struggle over abortion in the United States does not appear to be reaching any conclusion, because, among other things, "The abortion issue is not just about women's reproductive choices. It is a prism that refracts other issues in our culture having to do with women's roles and the way people think about family and women's identity in our culture," write Press and Cole, whose findings appear in a new book, "Speaking of Abortion: Television and Authority in the Lives of Women" (University of Chicago Press).

Press, a professor of communication and women's studies at the University of Illinois, and Cole, a professor of psychology and African American studies at Northeastern University, spent four years talking to women about abortion in small focus groups in the women's homes in housing projects and suburban subdivisions, condominiums and city houses. Each group viewed one of three prime-time TV shows that constituted "a diverse sampling of television's treatment of the abortion issue."

Press and Cole found that television depicts abortion as a "classed issue" in which some women, lacking social support and money, are depicted as worthy candidates for abortion while others, rich in these resources, are regularly spared such decisions through manipulation of the story line.

"In this construction of abortion, those who produce entertainment television present a worldview in which financial reality defines individual choice in a deterministic way, dictating the spectrum of available alternatives and serving as perhaps the most important consideration in evaluating which of the options is most appropriate," the authors write. In their study, they found that many middle-class pro-choice women share the same point of view as that displayed on television. Other findings:

  • Pro-life women view the media and medical experts outside the Christian pro-life community "critically and with suspicion," and they interpret the teachings of religious and scientific authorities to support their arguments. "In a complex way, pro-life women's scientific facts were carefully selected and interpreted in order to exclude or neutralize evidence that might support the pro-choice position."

  • Pro-choice women's beliefs, on the other hand, are divided along class lines. Working-class women defend choice because they view themselves as a group whose interests are continually threatened by legal authorities. Middle-class women argue for individual rights and think abortion necessary for those who aren't financially ready. Still, the most "overtly contradictory" positions on abortion came from middle-class pro-choice women. They "claimed to be passionately pro-choice, but paradoxically, most were also adamantly opposed to abortion for themselves."

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