Cultural Effects On Abortion

Over 3 million unplanned pregnancies occur every year in the United States (Grimes), 40% of which will end in abortion (Medoff, 2016). In 1973, the US Supreme Court voted to legalize abortion as a result of the Roe v Wade court case. The decision to allow women to pursue abortions was nationwide, however, the laws dictating how long a pregnancy could be kept was left to be determined on a state to state basis. (Medoff, 2016). The viewpoints surrounding abortion vary widely in the United States, meaning there is little standardization regarding abortion laws, with states such as California having 512 abortion clinics and almost no restriction concerning abortions; whereas in Louisiana there are only 3 clinics and women must view an ultrasound of their baby and receive state counseling before they are allowed to terminate a pregnancy (Guttmacher Institute). These stark differences in law are heavily influenced by the culture of the state, with both religious and political affiliation working to sway public opinion on abortion; 74% of non-religious Americans and 76% of Democrats believe in legal abortion, forming the Pro-Choice portion of the United States. This is compared to 50% of religious Americans and 59% of Republicans, who largely form the Pro-Life portion (Public Opinion on Abortion). 

Religion and politics are crucial in forming the culture of a society, and therefore its regulations surrounding moral issues such as abortion. This ideology was demonstrated by President Reagan in 1984, who stated: “the truth is, politics and morality are inseparable... morality’s foundation is religion (Gouveia, 2009).” This demonstrates that the cultural lens is critical in understanding the existing abortion legislation, and in answering the question “To what extent do attitudes and societal expectations surrounding abortions affect abortion rates in the United States?” The differing attitudes surrounding abortion can be understood through the varying attitudes surrounding sex in general, a topic shown in the varying sexual education curriculums throughout the United States. Sex education is taught in 93% of public schools in the US. Southern states were more likely to teach abstinence only education (30% of Southern schools versus 17% of schools in the Northeast.) (Landry et al, 3). One of the most abstinence focused states is Texas, with 97% of the school districts choosing to teach sex ed using the abstinence only curriculum, which stresses abstinence as the only completely successful way to prevent pregnancies and does not require education on contraceptives.(Sex in the States). A study done in a county in Texas, (whose name was withheld for privacy reasons), found that religion was the main reasoning parents had for supporting abstinence education. (American Sociological Association, 2016) It should be noted that the county in question housed many more Catholics and Evangelical Christians than the national average for a county of its size, meaning that the extent to which religion influences one’s opinion on sex may have been inflated by the large amount of people practicing the religion in question in that area. Still, the conservative mentality surrounding sex in Texas further demonstrates itself in their abortion legislation, outlawing abortion after 20 weeks, and raising the cost based on how far along the pregnancy is (American Civil Liberties Union of Texas).

 Texas is not unique in this way-the practice of abstinence focused education is present in most states with strict abortion laws, some of the most severe on both fronts being Alabama and North Carolina (where students are taught that having an abortion leads to future miscarriages, despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence to back this claim) (Sex in the States). Conversely, states that do not practice abstinence only education, such as Maine and California, also have rather liberal abortion laws (Guttmacher Institute: State facts about Abortion). This demonstrates how opinions on abortion are a subset of the viewpoints surrounding sex, and how generally a more open cultural attitude towards sex results in more lax abortion legislation. Once it has been established that attitudes on abortion are a part of a larger cultural divide in the United States, the question as to how these beliefs result in actual legislation can be asked. To examine this, we could look at the states Mississippi and Oregon, which are drastically different culturally, and therefore significantly divided in their abortion legislation. Oregon has voted Democrat in all presidential elections since 1988; (Oregon Election Historical Results and Data) Mississippi, on the other hand, is a strong Republican state. (Washington Post). Mississippi is also the 6th most Christian state, with 58,324 Christians per 100,000 people. In the same study, Oregon ranked second to last, with 30,101 Christians per 100,000 people (Huffington Post). These differences have resulted in contrasting abortion laws, with Mississippi only allowing pregnancy termination prior to 15 weeks of gestation, and Oregon allowing abortions at any point in the pregnancy (Medoff). As previously mentioned, religious and conservative people tend to identify more as pro-life, and constitute a large percentage of the voters in Mississippi. Religious organizations have more power than the average voting bloc, as they have a strong presence in swaying legislation, “since social and political values are codified through the legislative process, scholars have often found that religious communities successfully hone their collective… attention on the legislative theatre (Calfano, 2006)”. This opinion was backed up by US judge Carlton Reeves while speaking on the 15 week abortion ban in Mississippi, stating “the state chose to pass a law it knew was unconstitutional to endorse a decade's long campaign, fueled by national interest groups, to ask the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade” (Grinberg). The pressure on politicians to fulfill the wishes of powerful religious voting blocs results in the religious affiliation of voters being a culturally important element when it comes to determining abortion legislation. It is clear that there is a large divide in abortion legislation in the United States, directly affected by the overreaching culture of the region. To determine which type of legislation is actually most effective, there are many factors that must be examined. On a surface level, Republican states with a large number of religious residents that stress abstinence education will have stricter abortion laws, and, as a result, perform far fewer abortions than their more Democratic, less religious counterparts (Guttmacher Institute: State facts about Abortion). For individuals who view the only goal in abortion law as keeping abortion rates as low as possible, the more conservative approach would be the clear winner in this debate. 

However, conservative states that have legislated against abortion aren’t necessarily successful in preventing unplanned pregnancy. Teen birth rates in the US are highest in Mississippi, Texas, and Arkansas, all states that stress abstinence only education and where less than 10% of counties had abortion clinics. Conversely, they were lowest in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, all states that do not teach abstinence as the only way to prevent pregnancy and where over 40% of counties had abortion clinics (US Department of Health and Human Services) (Guttmacher Institute: State facts about Abortion). Arkansas and Mississippi are also among the top 3 states with the highest rates of child poverty, meaning that they rank high in both unplanned pregnancies carried to term as well as children being born into homes that struggle to support them (Children International). This demonstrates that low abortion rates are not necessarily indicative of how successful a state is in preventing unplanned and unsafe sex. The introduction of cultural attitudes that promote education and discussion surrounding safe sex, as well as many options to prevent unplanned pregnancies have proven to be successful (Children International, US Department of Health and Human Services). Abortion rates in the US have been dropping steadily in the last decade- in 2015, they were the lowest they’d ever been since Roe v Wade was introduced (The Two Way). Recently, it has become somewhat of a trend for conservative states to introduce more severe abortion laws and cut down on abortion clinics. During his presidential campaign, Trump promised that with the introduction of anti abortion judges to the Supreme Court, Roe v Wade would be overturned “automatically”. (Guttmacher Institute: State facts on Abortion) (Berman). As previously stated, while strict abortion laws are successful in keeping abortion rates low, it often does the opposite in terms of teen pregnancy and child poverty. A more standardized, research based system regarding abortion legislation, as well as a consistent and thorough sex education curriculum would be beneficial. 

07 July 2022
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