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Danny Osborne




2023 SPSSI Conference:
Gender, Sexism, and Abortion

Danny Osborne, The University of Auckland

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade sent shockwaves across the globe and highlighted the precarity of reproductive rights in the 21st century. By removing federal protections that ensured reproductive health options for pregnant people and returning these important, private, and deeply personal choices to state legislators, the Dobbs decision has myriad implications that will reverberate for decades to come. Indeed, research demonstrates that women living in societies where reproductive rights are protected have higher levels of life satisfaction, educational attainment, and financial success. Notably, some of these gains occur because societies with progressive reproductive rights have fewer unintended pregnancies. And importantly, these fewer unintended pregnancies are not due to more abortions, but rather, increased contraceptive use. Given these wide-spread societal benefits that coincide with progressive legislation, it is crucial to identify the correlates of abortion attitudes to better understand the barriers to reproductive autonomy.

A key starting point in the abortion debate is to distinguish between abortion sought for elective reasons (e.g., the pregnant person does not want to carry the pregnancy to term) and traumatic reasons (e.g., the pregnant person’s health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy). While some pro-choice advocates are ambivalent about supporting elective abortion and some anti-choice advocates are ambivalent about restricting access to traumatic abortion, recent work shows that over 85% of the U.S. population supports a pregnant person’s right to choose at least some of the time. These results stand in stark contrast to the Dobbs decision and ensuing “trigger” laws that effectively banned abortion in many “red” states once the issue of abortion was relegated to state authorities. The Dobbs decision also conflicts with the growing public support for abortion observed both in the U.S. and globally over the last few decades—people are becoming more, not less, accepting of a pregnant person’s right to choose.

What, then, contributes to public opposition to abortion? My colleagues and I have examined this question for the last 15 years and the answers may surprise you. In addition to the obvious correlates including religiosity and conservatism, sexism—but not necessarily gender—uniquely predicts abortion opposition. Indeed, we consistently show that it is the paternalistic chivalry and reverence reserved for traditional women captured by benevolent sexism, rather than the openly aggressive and antagonistic form of hostile sexism, that best predicts opposition to a pregnant person’s right to choose. Cross-sectional studies in the U.S. and New Zealand, as well as longitudinal work parsing out the temporal order of variables, confirm that benevolent sexism correlates negatively with (and precedes decreases in) support for both elective and traumatic abortion.

Collectively, this work demonstrates just how out of step the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision is with the broader public and illustrates the surprising, yet consistent, role that benevolent sexism plays in undermining abortion support within the public.

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