Managing Religion and Morality Within the Abortion Experience: Qualitative Interviews With Women Obtaining Abortions in the U.S.

Date01 December 2018
Published date01 December 2018
Managing Religion and Morality Within the Abortion
Experience: Qualitative Interviews With Women
Obtaining Abortions in the U.S.
Lori Frohwirth, Michele Coleman , and Ann M. Moore
Most women in the United States are religious, and most major religions in the United States
doctrinally disapprove of abortion. A substantial proportion of U.S. women have abortions. Although
relationships among religious beliefs, abortion attitudes, behaviors, and stigma have been found in
previous research, the relationship between stigma and religion is understudied. In-depth interviews
conducted with 78 women having abortions at nine sites in the United States found religion to
permeate abortion stigma manifestations and management strategies identif‌ied in previous research,
for religious and religiously aff‌iliated respondents as well as those who did not claim a religious
aff‌iliation. Health-care providers, religious leaders, researchers, and advocates need to recognize the
inf‌luence religion has on the experience of obtaining an abortion for all women in theUnited States.
KEY WORDS: abortion, religion, stigma
Religion and abortion are closely connected in political and social discourse
in the United States. Most major religions express doctrinal disapproval of
abortion (The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2013a), and this
condemnation is ref‌lected in individuals’ stated beliefs; research has demon-
strated a strong connection between individual religiosity and negative abortion
attitudes (Adamczyk, 2013; Alvarez & Brehm, 1995; Craig, Cane, & Martinez,
2002; Emerson, 1996; Hoffman & Mills Johnson, 2005; Jelen & Wilcox, 2003; Sahar
& Karasawa, 2005; The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2008; Woodrum
& Davison, 1992). Recent polling found that, when asked if abortion was morally
wrong, almost half of Americans said that it was (47 percent), with only 13
percent reporting that abortion was morally acceptable, and 27 percent stating
that abortion is not a moral issue. Larger percentages of Protestants and Catholics
reported believing abortion to be morally wrong (56 and 58 percent) and only 20
percent of those without an aff‌iliation held this belief (The Pew Forum on
Religion and Public Life, 2013b).
World Medical & Health Policy, Vol. 10, No. 4, 2018
doi: 10.1002/wmh3.289
#2018 The Authors. World Medical & Health Policy Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on behalf of Policy Studies Organization
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which permits use
and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non-commercial and no modifications or
adaptations are made.
Both religious aff‌iliation and the experience of having an abortion are
common in the United States; 77 percent of Americans aff‌iliate themselves with a
religion (The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2015), and 79 percent of
women of reproductive age do so (Jerman, Jones, & Onda, 2016). One out of
every four American women will have had an abortion by age 45 (at current
abortion rates) (Jones & Jerman, 2017). Religiously aff‌iliated women in the United
States therefore do obtain abortions despite doctrinal disapproval of the practice;
approximately 60 percent of the over 900,000 women who obtained an abortion in
2014 claimed a religious aff‌iliation (Jerman et al., 2016). Nor does it appear that
there is a striking difference between the abortion-related behavior of women
who are aff‌iliated with “mainstream” religions versus all women. Current
demographics show that Catholic women obtain abortions at the same rate as all
other women with Mainline Protestants at a slightly lower rate. Abortion-related
behavior is different at the ends of the spectrum, however; Evangelicals obtain
abortions at half the rate of all women, and women with no aff‌iliation at nearly
double the rate of all women (Jerman et al., 2016). Studies have found that
religion plays an inconclusive and context-specif‌ic role in women’s decision
making about whether to terminate a pregnancy (Adamczyk, 2008, 2009;
Adamczyk & Felson, 2008; Williams, 1982).
Due to the high levels of religious aff‌iliation and religiosity of the U.S.
population, this religious disapproval has implications for individual women
choosing to have an abortion. These women (both those who claim a religious
identity and those who do not but live in this country’s highly religious culture,
where religious values are often intertwined with social and public policy) must
decipher from a myriad of messages whether abortion is the right option for
them and manage the implications of their decision within their own religious
and moral frameworks. Foster, Gould, Taylor, and Weitz (2012) documented this
potential conf‌lict in her survey of 5,387 abortion patients at one U.S. clinic in 2008
regarding their decision to terminate. Thirty-six percent of these women reported
having spiritual concerns about abortion and 28 percent were not at peace
spiritually with their decision.
These concerns suggest a concept of religiously informed abortion stigma
not addressed in the previously discussed literature. Stigma has been studied
since the 1960s and applied to reproductive outcomes and abortion in particular
beginning in the late 1990s. Goffman’s (1963) theory of social stigma, often
considered the preeminent stigma theory, def‌ines stigma as an “attribute that is
deeply discrediting” which “taints” an individual’s identity. Goffman also
theorizes stigma-management strategies. Typically, individuals affected by
stigma hold the same beliefs as society at large about what is considered
“normal,” and understand which aspects of themselves are stigmatized; they
then often correctly perceive they will not fully be accepted by society when in
possession of the stigmatized trait. This causes shame because the individual
cannot ever reach “normal” status. The individual can attempt to correct the
blemish by mastering an area or activity considered close to the shortcoming,
for example, a person who uses a wheelchair becoming a marathoner. The
382 World Medical & Health Policy, 10:4

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