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Abortion Rights and the Role of Values

The Dobbs ruling violates secular values.

Key points

  • It is important to reflect on how values form and how they motivate individuals to understand differing views.
  • Values underpin every action, choice, decision, and endorsement we make.
  • We must pause to confirm or disconfirm our value preferences continually to ensure they align with our best or true interests.

June 25, 2022. Outrage spreads globally across social media. Protestors crowd outside the United States Supreme Court. The verdict in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization revokes women’s longstanding right to pursue abortions. While those outraged represent the majority, those in favour of the rulings form a significant proportion of the American public.

An expression of values

The decision reflects traditional over secular values. Therefore, opposing value systems distinguish those who support the ruling from those who express contempt. We can reflect on how values form and how they motivate individuals to understand differing views.

"Secular" and "traditional" describe broad differences and shifts in values across countries and time as a function of economic progress and other factors such as nations’ cultural and religious heritages. Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel first applied the secular-traditional dichotomy to define dimensions explaining more than 70% of variation found in values across the globe, as reflected by data gained from the World Values Survey. The survey originated in 1981 and continues to survey over 90% of the world’s citizens every five years to examine trends in beliefs, norms, and values.

Traditional values are said to emerge at times of "existential insecurity" marked by such events as disease, economic instability, famines, and wars. Through emphasising the importance of preserving authority, respecting nationalism, and upholding religion and traditional family principles, they appear to serve protectionist functions. Those who endorse a traditionalist worldview reject abortion, divorce, euthanasia, and suicide. Societies marked by traditionalism are typically classified as developing, or less affluent or industrialized, such as those found in Bangladesh, Jordan, and Zimbabwe; however, many states in the United States are highly traditionalist despite modernisation.

Secular values represent opposite preferences to traditional values, placing less emphasis on authority, religion, and traditional family and religious virtues. Societies espousing these values display abandonment of authoritarianism for democratisation by participating in and questioning decision-making. Secularization is thought to emerge in periods of "existential security" as the absence of threat leads people to "take survival for granted" and move from being driven to "survive" to being motivated towards actions that promote self-determination.

Shifting from traditionalism, which serves self or state preservation, to secularity, which prioritizes "higher-order" needs such as free expression, takes years as birth cohorts raised in putatively "secure times" express values years later as adults. This said, shifts are not guaranteed as history exerts a strong influence on observed values across and within countries, as seen in nations with strong religious roots where people continue to honour traditions irrespective of perceptions of safety or threats to their welfare.

According to this year’s American Gallup Values and Belief Poll, the split between pro-choice and pro-life respondents was 55% versus 39%. The minority opposing abortion were demographically characterised by fewer years of education, lower income, and being male, older, Republican, politically conservative, and having weekly religious service attendance. This set of demographic characteristics presents a group with traditional values mostly stemming from and supported by the effects of religion.

The point of highlighting the contribution of values to whether one accepts or disagrees with the removal of a woman’s right to abortion is to draw attention to the importance of reflecting on the values you hold. Our actions, choices, decisions, and endorsements are never value-neutral despite our best efforts to be impartial. Values affect every aspect of our lives, from whether we choose to substitute sugar for saccharin at a personal level, to whether justices favour the wording of a constitution above contemplating ethical priorities and standards. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we are vulnerable to accepting values that are legacies of past and prevailing economic, political, and social conditions, perhaps more than we are good at selecting values that are demonstrations of careful deliberation and selection. We must pause to confirm or disconfirm our value preferences continually to ensure they align with our best or true interests, collective and personal.


Gallup. (2022). 'Pro-Choice' or 'Pro-Life' Demographic Table.…

Inglehart, R. (2018). Cultural Evolution: People's Motivations are Changing, and Reshaping the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.