life after roe

What Makes People Change Their Minds About Abortion?

Pro-choice evolutions can take years, a timeline that feels painfully slow in this moment.

Two beige silhouettes of women are facing away from each other.
Photo-Illustration: Josiah Whitfield; Photos: Getty
Two beige silhouettes of women are facing away from each other.
Photo-Illustration: Josiah Whitfield; Photos: Getty

In the conservative Houston community where Stephanie grew up, abortion was a concept so heinous that adults almost never mentioned it by name. Both her parents are refugees from El Salvador; her father is Catholic and her mother is an Evangelical Christian. The message she received from her family, over and over again, was that ending a pregnancy amounted to “the murder of a child, the worst thing a woman can do.”

“According to some people, God forgives all, but for the people that I was raised by, God does not forgive abortion,” she says. A woman who got an abortion would go to “hell for eternity and burn and there is nothing else.”

But when Stephanie was a senior in high school, she found out she was pregnant on a dare. A high-school classmate, disbelieving she actually had a boyfriend, goaded her into taking a test in the middle of class. Sitting in the bathroom and watching the positive result materialize, she knew instantly that she wasn’t continuing the pregnancy. “In that moment, there was no other thought,” she recalls. “I thought abortion was going to leave me infertile, and that I was going to have depression and breast cancer and I would never have sex again — so many bad things were going to happen, and it was irrelevant. It was just, I’m not having this child.” 

Because her mother and grandmother would always stop to say a prayer when they drove by Planned Parenthood, Stephanie knew where to go. She kept the whole thing secret, scheduling an appointment at a clinic an hour and a half away, cobbling together about $300 from her McDonald’s wages and her sister’s tips from waitressing. She forged two absence excuses for her high school, three days apart, and terminated her pregnancy just before her senior prom. “I went through two weeks of stress,” she recalls, “for a procedure that lasted like ten minutes.” Afterward, she “felt relief and for the first time, joy,” but never regret.

That kind of evolution on abortion is uncommon. In many cases, people who oppose abortion will never experience a life-altering event that immediately flips a mental switch. Some will gradually shed their opposition over time, as they encounter different viewpoints that wear down their beliefs. But among the most committed antagonists, the idea of abortion as an absolute evil feels fixed; members of this group are resistant to data and research documenting the procedure’s safety, as well as personal accounts from patients who say access improved their lives.

This is one of the most frustrating things about covering abortion: the sense that there is no way to reach this vocal and committed minority, and no way to make them listen. Poll after poll — even one conducted by Fox News — suggests that the majority of U.S. adults want to keep abortion legal, at least in some capacity. Largely, those who believe “abortion should be illegal in all or most cases,” per the Pew Research Center, identify as Christian. Their faith now dictates federal law, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority having overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24. From a public-health perspective, and for those who value personal autonomy, the decision stands to devastate thousands, maybe even millions.

As we lurch into a future without Roe, a few questions play inside my brain on a loop: What moves the needle for people who oppose abortion? What makes them change their minds, or, at least, allows them to soften their opinions? What causes a person to shift even from the position of abortion isn’t right to abortion isn’t right for me, but what do I know about other people’s lives?

Of the ten people I interviewed about changing their minds on abortion, only three described lightbulb moments that influenced their thinking. Most framed their past views as an inherited religious teaching (all identified as formerly conservative Christians and Catholics), a given they never thought to question until they left their community. In every retelling, the process sounded more like erosion than a sudden collapse, an unwitting shift that occurred over years and usually after they had begun to rethink other aspects of their faith. Some cited new relationships that challenged their stance on, for example, gay marriage. Some reported disillusionment with a church that seemed apathetic to their needs in times of crisis. Others simply moved away or went to college — and that’s typical, according to Hugo Mercier, a cognitive research scientist at the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris.

A person’s moral and religious beliefs tend to conform to their environment because “essentially, you’ve been trained to get along,” Mercier explains. As long as you remain in an environment where views on abortion — or any charged issue — run one way, there’s little incentive or opportunity to consider a divergent perspective. If the top-down message tells you abortion amounts to infanticide, and you don’t have any other information, of course you’re going to oppose it. “As long as it remains a mostly theoretical matter, the only costs and benefits to having an opinion on abortion are social,” Mercier says.

But once abortion becomes personal — when your future stands to change depending on whether or not you decide to continue a pregnancy — the real-life implications often “swamp the social costs and benefits completely,” he explains. “If you live in a society where you know you will be completely ostracized if you have an abortion, still it’s a huge social cost, but there’s something else in the balance. It’s not just, what are other people going to think of me if I think such and such idea, it’s more like, well, what’s going to happen to me.”

It’s also crucial to remember what community likely means in this context. A popular refrain on the left, often splashed across protest signs, proposes that people who don’t like abortions simply not get them. But that attitude reflects “a fundamental misreading of what’s going on on the religious right,” says Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and executive director of its Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit dedicated to social-science research on family issues. Within a conservative or fundamentalist worldview, natural law dictates that “creating life and supporting life is a woman’s essential function, and therefore destroying potential life becomes not just the ‘murder’ of a human being,” Glass explains, but also “an unnatural rejection of this natural order.”

Under that line of reasoning, ending a pregnancy would be shirking a divine duty, akin to “men deserting from armed conflict,” Glass says, and “deserving of the same kind of moral opprobrium and probably the same kind of horrible punishment.” If you truly buy into the idea that a woman’s one true purpose in life is to bear children, and that God does not err in judgment, then you really might consider even a pregnancy that results from rape as “a silver lining.” And yet, Glass says, some people may still experience “moments when exactly how terrifying it would be to have to go through pregnancy and birth and support a new baby become real.” Those moments can be pivotal.

Elaina Ramsey “grew up very sheltered” outside Columbus, Ohio. In her parents’ household, sex wasn’t up for discussion. “I’m from an Asian American family, dad was in the navy, I had a very strict upbringing,” she says. Her world shrunk further when her neighbor brought her to their Evangelical church as a teen. “I got saved,” she recalls, “and part of that worldview is that you go out and you save everyone else from their sins, and the sins that were a big no-no … had everything to do with our bodies: homosexuality and abortion.” She socialized in a small group with people who were just as faithful as her. And she stayed firm in her beliefs until, she says, “I was raped by a trusted Christian friend” in college.

“That’s how I lost my virginity,” she explains. “My world just crumbled at that point because I really blamed myself, and I thought that I could no longer be a Christian anymore, that I wasn’t saved.” Standing in line to buy her first pregnancy test, Ramsey recalls “deep, deep shame and dread.” She believed that the rape had somehow been her fault, even as she understood she had been violated. She felt conflicted. “I was taught that good people don’t have abortions, and here I am deciding, Okay, if I am pregnant, would I?” she remembers. “Very clearly, in my conscience, I knew that I would. That I would choose myself and my future and my life after college over giving birth.”

Realizing that there were situations in which abortion felt acceptable complicated Ramsey’s beliefs, as did her rape. “What does this mean, that I’ve been a part of this community, and now I feel I can no longer be a part of it because I didn’t follow the rules, or I’m not as pure as I was told to be?” she asks. But even then, Ramsey did not experience a lightbulb moment. Her reconsideration of abortion would take years, as she moved away from her Ohio circle to work in the Bronx. “Connecting with people and hearing their stories,” she realized that “abortion is not just this bogeyman thing,” but “part of what it means to be human, so we have to leave room for people’s humanity and for grace.”

As Ramsey’s experience demonstrates, even grappling with an unplanned pregnancy (or the possibility of one) may not prompt an automatic about-face on abortion. In the absence of a personal experience — your own, or that of a loved one — Mercier says that a person’s ability to change their mind often involves a physical change in community. Encountering new people with new viewpoints, cultivating trust; all of that can set the machine in motion. The bubble pops when you leave it.

That was the case for Dr. Katherine Farris, a family medicine doctor who grew up staunchly anti-abortion and is now the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic. Farris was raised in the Catholic church and stayed active into college, where new friendships and new relationships challenged her closely held beliefs — about who gets into heaven and why; about sex and marriage and abuse. As one domino fell, it knocked over another, making space for her to consider her faith as a whole. Farris also knew, from about age 7, that she wanted to be a doctor; later, the moralizing she’d been taught in church didn’t square with what she learned in her medical school courses. “For a million different reasons, science says that not every pregnancy that is formed should continue,” she explains, “and science has ways of making that inevitable, through miscarriage or loss. But we use the science of medicine to help people who need our help.” Moral absolutes don’t apply.

One of the reactions Farris hears most often from her abortion patients is, “I never thought I would do this.” “The story of the protester who comes in and gets an abortion is a common story for a reason,” she says, referring to the anti-choice sidewalk counselors often clustered outside of clinics. They cannot conceive of the true stakes of pregnancy until they find their own autonomy on the line. Unfortunately, “Some people stop there and say, my justification is good,” Farris explains: They bend their rules, but don’t change their position. “They say, ‘I’m an exception, my story is different,’” Farris says, “and the reality is everyone’s story is different and unique, and that’s why everybody has to be able to make the choice themselves.”

It’s a frustrating chicken-or-egg scenario: The ability to think outside yourself, to imagine a set of circumstances different than your own and to suspend your judgment on them — in other words, to empathize — is both the solution and the roadblock when it comes to talking about abortion. “If you can’t walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, if you can’t fathom or imagine or ever encounter a situation where abortion might be the best alternative,” Glass says, “then of course it becomes impossible for you to move the needle away from the belief that abortion is just murder.” I lack the personal experience to fully appreciate how someone’s faith leads them to that belief. I think barring someone from getting an abortion is cruel, no nuances, knowing that those on the other side feel the same way about abortion itself. We are having two parallel conversations, both of us failing to grasp — or to even try to grasp — where the other is coming from.

In the end, that may be the biggest barrier to this conversation: “The ideal medium to change someone’s mind,” Mercier says, “is a one-to-one discussion, where you can really exchange arguments” — maybe about what conservatives do, after birth, to care for new parents and their children, or about what it actually means to support a family — and where you can make someone “realize that you’re a trustworthy person and that you’re sensible.” But even then, there’s no silver-bullet story that will make a steadfast abortion opponent change their mind on the issue right then and there.

The evolutions the people I interviewed underwent occurred incrementally, over years, a timeline that feels painfully slow to me in this moment. I can’t find that patience right now, nor can I summon up empathy when it comes to the religious right. A doctrine that forces people to give birth, specifically because choice on that matter threatens to level out gender and racial power imbalances: That’s extremism. The obligation not only to engage with it, but also to work to understand a perspective from someone who is unwilling or unable to do the same — to exercise patience, to chip away at your differences while the right to bodily autonomy crumbles in the background — all of it grates. At the same time, it feels reasonable to expect that the pool of people suddenly faced with the possibility of an unplanned birth will soon expand. The conservative agenda that axed abortion skews hostile to contraception and comprehensive sex ed; when those resources become scarce, pregnancy rates rise. Maybe the inflexible viewpoint will create the conditions necessary to finally bend it, but at an unconscionable cost.

What Makes People Change Their Minds About Abortion?