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In Abortion Debate, Emotion and Law in Tension

Research explains how personal beliefs inform public discussion.

Key points

  • Abortion is a unique issue of deep personal conviction that prompts vigorous public debate.
  • The legality of abortion raises sensitive issues of beliefs, attitudes, morality, and faith.
  • Terminology used within the abortion debate reflects emotion, attitudes, and beliefs.

Abortion is a unique issue of deep personal conviction that prompts vigorous public debate. This was true even before Dobbs v. Jackson (2022), in which the Supreme Court overturned the landmark case of Roe v. Wade, returning the power to legislate abortion to the states. Consequently, unlike other points of public contention, the legality of abortion raises sensitive and emotional personal issues involving beliefs, attitudes, morality, and faith.

Personal Conviction and Public Opinion

According to a Pew research poll,[i] a significant number of Americans have given serious thought to the issue of abortion. Accordingly, there are a wide range of opinions. Some embrace the pro-life biblical view supported by numerous passages of Scripture, (“You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb;”[ii] “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”[iii]). Others believe abortion should be the choice of a woman, not the government, with differing views of how far along in pregnancy it should be permitted. Many Americans hold beliefs that fall somewhere in the middle, often qualified by the nature of the acts leading to the pregnancy (such as incest or rape), or the health of the mother.

Abortion laws share common ground with all other laws to the extent that all laws are based on principles of morality. This is especially true with criminal laws, a field within which I have practiced both as a defense attorney and a prosecutor for over 25 years. But unlike laws criminalizing crimes of violence or property crimes, the decision of whether to end a pregnancy is a very different, and emotional calculation.

Image by Mark Thomas on Pixabay
Source: Image by Mark Thomas on Pixabay

Abortion and Emotion

The emotional aspect of abortion is reflected through research examining social expressions of personal belief. Evangelos Ntontis and Nick Hopkins (2018) explored how activists frame abortion as a social problem.[iv] They specifically considered how campaigners, both pro-choice and anti-abortion, portrayed women choosing to abort, and the variety of ways emotion was featured in the representation of social actors.

Michal Bilewicz et al. (2017) examined how terminology used within the abortion debate reflects attitudes and beliefs.[v] Recognizing that language shapes and reflects cognition and attitudes, they analyzed how using the terms “fetus” and “unborn child” reveals attitudes about abortion as well as “(de)mentalization” of the unborn. Consistent with other research, they found, among other things, that differing opinions about abortion were mediated by what they describe as the “emotionality ascribed to the preborn.”

Kate Greasley (2012) examined the issue of post-abortion regret, concluding that experiencing regret based on past decisions is often decoupled from thoughts about moral or rational justification.[vi] She views regret as an unsuitable measure for moral or rational justification due to specific features of reproductive decisions, as compared to other fields of decision-making.

Framing the Future

Understanding the emotional underpinnings of the abortion debate, fueled by both public opinion and personal conviction, can facilitate understanding and provide context to inform and hopefully prompt productive discussion about issues involving both legality and morality.



[ii] Psalm 139:13.

[iii] Jeremiah 1:5.

[iv] Ntontis, Evangelos, and Nick Hopkins. 2018. “Framing a ‘social Problem’’: Emotion in Anti‐abortion Activists’ Depiction of the Abortion Debate.’” British Journal of Social Psychology 57 (3): 666–83. doi:10.1111/bjso.12249.

[v] Bilewicz, Michał, Gosia Mikołajczak, and Maria Babińska. 2017. “Speaking about the Preborn How Specific Terms Used in the Abortion Debate Reflect Attitudes and (de)Mentalization.” Personality and Individual Differences 111 (June): 256–62. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.02.018.

[vi] Greasley, Kate. 2012. “Abortion and Regret.” Journal of Medical Ethics: Journal of the Institute of Medical Ethics 38 (12): 705–11. doi:10.1136/medethics-2012-100522.