What Can Conjoint Experiments Tell Us about Americans’ Abortion Attitudes?

Date01 March 2022
Published date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2022, Vol. 50(2) 147156
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211053211
What Can Conjoint Experiments Tell Us
about AmericansAbortion Attitudes?
David Doherty
Ireportf‌indings from a pair of conjoint experiments that presented respondents with a series of prof‌iles of pregnant women and
asked whether it should be possible for each to obtain a legal abortion.The prof‌iles varied the reason for the abortion, gestational
age, and demographic characteristicsof the hypothetical woman. I f‌ind little evidence that womens demographic characteristics
including their purported ethnoracial identitiesaffect these judgments. In contrast, the effects of gestational age and the reason for
the abortion are substantial. Notably, the effects of gestational age appear to be linear and unresponsive to trimester and viability
thresholds commonly cited in elite discourse. I also f‌ind that thereason for the abortionbecomes more consequential asgestational
age increases. Finally, I consider whether these effects vary with respondentsparty aff‌iliation and gender. The f‌indings offer new
insights into the contours of abortion attitudes in the United States and illustrate the strengths and limitations of conjoint designs.
conjoint, abortion, gender gap, public opinion, experiment
A substantial body of literature has examined the roles re-
ligiosity, gender, ethnoracial identity, and an array of other
individual-level characteristics play in shaping broad support
for permitting women to access abortion (e.g., Adamczyk &
Valdimarsdóttir, 2018;Loll & Hall, 2019;Holman, Podrazik
and Mohamed 2020, for reviews, see Jelen & Wilcox, 2003;
Adamczyk et al., 2020). However, although Americans are
often crudely characterized as either pro-lifeor pro-
choice,attitudes about abortion are more complex than this
distinction implies (Luker, 1984;Cook et al., 1992) and many
Americans appear to have mixed feelings about this issue
(Craig et al., 2002). For many, support for permitting abortion
depends on the reason for the abortion, gestational age, and
perhaps the characteristics of the pregnant woman (Munson,
Public attitudes about abortion can shape policy
outcomes (Arceneaux, 2002), so it is important to understand
the nature of these attitudes.
Abortion attitudes are most commonly measured using
closed-ended survey questions. More often than not, these
questions focus on only one element of abortionthe
reasons that a woman might have to seek an abortion
(Jelen & Wilcox, 2003, 490). However, a handful of studies
have used survey experiments to pursue f‌iner-grained as-
sessments of the contours of the publics abortion attitudes.
For example, Hans and Kimberly (2014) report f‌indings from
a telephone survey that built-outrandomly assigned aspects
of a hypothetical pregnant womans situation sequentially.
Another study used the standard General Social Survey
(GSS) battery of abortion questions as a starting point and
randomly varied whether the question indicated that the
woman was less than 3 months pregnant(Bumpass, 1997).
In this research note I build on this work, reporting f‌indings
from a pair of conjoint experiments that presented respon-
dents with detailed prof‌iles of pregnant women and asked
them whether the woman should be able to obtain a legal
abortion. I make four contributions.
First, the conjoint design provides an avenue for disen-
tangling the effects of considerations that may be correlated in
peoples minds. For example, people may infer that abortions
prompted by dangers to the health of the mother tend occur
late in pregnancy or among older pregnant women. If so,
differences in responses to a survey question that, say, asks
whether abortion should be permitted if the womans health
endangered and one that asks whether abortion should be
permitted if the woman became pregnant as a result of rape
may conf‌late the effects of the reason with considerations tied
to gestational age or the age of the woman seeking the
abortion. Similarly, in the second study, I account for the
possibility that the apparent effects of other considerations
mask effects of inferences respondents may make regarding
Loyola University, Chicago, IL, USA
Corresponding Author:
David Doherty, Department of Political Science, Loyola University, 1032 W.
Sheridan Road, Chicago, IL 60660, USA.
Email: ddoherty@luc.edu

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