As the world’s premier Catholic women’s institution of higher learning, Saint Mary’s College stands at a crossroads between reinforcing conservative Catholic values and providing a liberal education for modern women. In this intellectually rich environment, each of us acquires and progressively refines our unique and heterogeneous matrix of attitudes. Among the most significant of issues and concerns, is the dilemma posed by choices associated with abortion. A random sample of seven seniors and six first-year students in Saint Mary’s diverse community assessed attitudes toward abortion. Interviews provided data to learn how social factors shaped these women’s current attitudes about the abortion issue in the United States. Family, religion, and personal experience were prominent themes expressed in each interview. Social construction theory allows one to appreciate a deeper understanding of what factors in an individual’s life socially create the issues we each face.
“Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice:
A Social Constructionist approach to Abortion Attitudes
at Saint Mary's College”
A post-modern society is a multi-cultural world with heterogeneous views, ideas, and values. In this culture where homogenous thought is questioned, how can society identify a “social problem?” According to social construction theory, persons within society arrive at meanings individually through their personal experiences, historical perspective, and culture. The physical world does not dictate one unique meaning to any given thought or condition. This idea is central to post-modern thought because it is founded on the idea that a single truth does not exist – only interpretations of the world. This theory therefore, challenges objective thought and argues for a search for meaning from a subjective point of view.
Social construction theory seeks the meaning that people give to social problems. Donileen R. Loseke (2003) identifies how a condition comes to have the meaning of a “problem.” In a world where a condition, such as abortion, can be interpreted in many different ways, a social problem does not hold a uniform meaning throughout a society. This evaluation of how different people view conditions within society is key to understanding how social problems originate. Loseke explores how activists with different stances on a particular social problem use a claims-making process in order to encourage other individuals to sympathize with their cause and, ultimately, join with them in order to combat a social problem. It is through this constructivist perspective that a social problem, such as abortion, can be fully analyzed sociologically. The purpose of this paper is to identify abortion attitudes at Saint Mary’s College and to apply Loseke’s model of social construction theory in order analyze the how individuals at Saint Mary’s College construct the issue of abortion. Through this investigation of abortion as a claim, one can better grasp the multiple meanings of abortion to people in the United States.
LITERATURE REVIEW Abortion has been an issue of debate for hundreds of years, however it has become one of the United States most controversial topics in 1973 after the Roe v. Wade decision stated that it was a women’s constitutional right to obtain an abortion if she so desired (O’Brien 2005). Since the Roe v. Wade decision, many groups have organized to express their opposition to the decision and to advocate change. These groups usually adapt a pro-life attitude. A pro-life position is one that is against all abortions that intentionally end a pregnancy, because it infringes on an embryo’s or fetus’ right to life. The opposing position is called pro-choice. Pro-choice attitudes support a woman’s right to control her fertility by allowing her to obtain an abortion regardless of the situation (O’Brien 2005).
Previous research contributes to knowledge about the public’s attitudes towards abortion. Scott and Schuman (1988) conducted a national survey measuring the strength of attitudes towards abortion (i.e. how strongly people felt against or for abortion). Scott and Schuman found that pro-life advocates were generally more likely to regard the abortion issue as important than individuals who are pro-choice. Other research by Blake and Del Pinal (1981) found that most respondents agree with parts of both the pro-choice and pro-life platforms, and suggests that this “middle ground” represents the majority of the population. Participants that agreed strongly with the entire pro-life or pro-choice platforms were rare. Overall, these articles present a historical snapshot of attitudes concerning abortion in the United States in the 1980. More recent attitudinal research is absent.
Research in the international arena offers more current assessments on attitudes toward abortion. In research related to international Catholics’ views on abortion, Catholics for a Free Choice (2003) shows that Catholics in the United States are less likely to agree to abortion than citizens in many other countries.
In the United States, research has been conducted on how certain social and cultural groups view abortion. Research has been conducted to determine how a person’s gender affects his/her view of abortion. Phifer and Lester (2000) surveyed 19 male and 52 female, undergraduate students about abortion attitudes in conjunction with the Bem Sex Role Inventory. With one exception, they found no correlation between sex roles and attitudes towards abortion. The one corollary was in response to the question “Do you think that a woman should get consent from the father of the fetus to obtain an abortion?” Approval from the father was found to be a greater concern for men than women. (Phifer and Lester 2000)
Reach shows that people’s age influences an individual’s attitude toward abortion. Boggess and Bradner (2000) evaluated adolescent male attitudes towards abortion. They surveyed boys in 1988 and again in 1995 questioning their attitudes toward abortion in various pregnancy situations. If pregnancy was the result of rape or could cause injury to the mother, the majority of boys agreed with the women’s right to an abortion. When asked about their approval for a woman to receive an abortion for “any” reason, the majority strongly disagreed. Boggess and Bradner compared answers from 1988 and 1995 and found that in less than a decade, the approval rating for abortion in every situation dropped significantly.
Boggess and Bradner (2000) also discovered a correlation between race and attitudes towards abortion in adolescents. They found that the increase in conservative views towards abortion were due to the decrease in approval for abortion among white or other males in their surveys. Black and Hispanic males had no significant change in their views of abortion from 1988 to 1995 and found that in less than a decade, the approval rating for abortion in every situation dropped significantly.
Further research by Ellison, Erevarria, and Smith (2005) explored Latino abortion attitudes and their correlation to religion. They found that Protestant Latinos are more committed to the pro-life movement than any other religious Latino group. This finding is in contrast to previous studies, finding that the strong pro-life sentiment within the Latino culture was due in large, to the Catholic cultural influences (Ellison, Erevarria, and Smith 2005). Ellison, Erevarria, and Smith (2005) also found that Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans tend to be more pro-life than Cuban-Americans.
Religion, as previously explained, is a significant factor in the explaining attitudes surrounding abortion. “Catholics for a Free Choice” (2003) found in the United States, that a majority of Catholics is less likely to strictly adhere to Catholic doctrine, to include the Catholic doctrine pertaining to abortion. While the Catholic Church does not believe in abortion under any circumstances, research offered by “Catholics for a Free Choice” (2003) shows that Catholic Americans are less inclined to accept this uncompromising position.
Previous research has also examined a college student’s views of abortion. Bryan and Freed (1992) surveyed college students on demographic background, sexual activity, and views of abortion in community colleges in Massachusetts, a predominantly Catholic, Democratic state. Although the majority of the respondents were raised Catholic (70%), 82% of the participants supported abortion. Bryan and Freed found that in comparison to pro-abortion respondents, anti-abortion students were more serious about their religion (received higher scores for religiosity), were less likely to have engaged in sexual activity, and were less likely to have known someone who had obtained an abortion. Supplementing this research, Yeager (2005) found similar results in her study of college students. A majority of students in Yeager’s study agreed with liberal political attitudes, including abortion. While most of students considered themselves as politically independent, the assessment also showed that a majority of political attitudes fell into the liberal category. Yeager’s study suggests that the majority of college student support abortion rights.
In 1999, Roman and Lester explored how personality affects a college student’s abortion attitudes. Roman and Lester found that while “religion” and “being female” significantly affected a student’s support for abortion, there was no relationship between abortion attitudes personality.
Much work on attitudes toward abortion has been done for political and psychological purposes in the form of surveys. This study aims at exploring the gap in research from a sociological standpoint. It also will analyze the how the issue of abortion is socially constructed within the unique, all women’s environment present at Saint Mary’s College.
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION THEORY Loseke states (2003: 14) "social construction perspectives are called subjectivist approaches because they are concerned with social problems as subjective definition.” Loseke argues that a subjective methodology is necessary to discover why something is a "problem" rather than accepting a condition as a problem. "We [individuals in society] attach a particular meaning (troublesome) to this condition, and to do this we need to decide why it is troublesome… a social problem does not exist until it is defined as such" (Loseke 2003: 14). In order for a social problem to be defined as such, Loseke believes that a social problem must undergo the processes called “typification'” and “claims making.”
Harvey, Beckman, and Branch (2002) in their article “The Relationship of Contextual Factors to Women’s Perceptions of Medical Abortion” apply this subjective approach specifically to understanding women’s views concerning abortion. Using focus groups, they found that the perceived attributes of medical abortion were very much interrelated with the context of the women’s life. “Contextual and personal factors (residence, social support, cultural background, religion, ambivalence towards abortion, and employment) interact with specific attributes of the method to determine acceptability and choice” (Harvey, Beckman, and Branch 2002: 654). This study exemplifies the complexity of abortion attitudes. Social construction theory can be applied to a social problem, such as the controversy surrounding abortion, to better understand how social problems are constructed.
Typification is the images "in our heads of typical kinds of things, be these cats, prostitutes, or ecological ruin. Because we cannot know all cats, prostitutes, or instances of ecological ruin, the best we can do is have an image of the typical" (Loseke 2003: 17). This process of producing a typical image that represents a social problem occurs through claims-making activities.
Claims-making is the process in which claims, "any verbal, visual, or behavioral statement that seeks to persuade audience members to define a condition as a social problem," are produced by claims-makers (Loseke 2003: 26). Claim-makers produce their claims intentionally to affect a target audience that has been purposefully chosen. "Audiences are critical in the process as a social problem is created only when audience members evaluate claims as believable and important" (Loseke 2003: 27). An example of this idea can be seen in Press and Cole’s, work Speaking of Abortion (1999). Press and Cole found that pro-choice claims-makers used images on television that targeted certain social classes and racial groups. Once a claims-maker chooses an audience, a strategy is developed to convince the target audience that their claim is the correct response to a social problem.
Three common strategies that claims-makers use are: typifying stories as implicit definitions, construction extreme consequences, and claiming at a right time. Typifying stories as implicit definitions occurs when the claims-makers "use one to two examples and then allow the audience to “fill in the blanks” (Loseke 2003: 56). Claims-makers using this strategy present two or more separate scenarios, statistics, or outcomes and allow the audience to conclude the stories are related to one another and the condition at hand. The claims-makers in actuality may haven presented examples that are independent of each other and to the social problem at hand. Best in Damned Lies and Statistics (2001) explains how this strategy can be used in statistics. Best (2001: 97-98) notes that people compare “apples to oranges” when they attempt to make “comparisons among statistics that are not comparable.” Claims-makers do this in order to “confuse and distort” statistics in favor of a claims-makers’ claim (Best 2001: 97-98).
Loseke identifies another strategy used to distort the situation is constructing extreme consequences. Claims-makers typify situations as extremely horrifying by displaying the social problem with strong, devastating language and extreme stories that are not usually the typical situation of the social problem. Their goal is to convince the audience that the extreme presented is the typical situation. Best also describes this strategy and how extreme consequence are made through the use of statistics. Claims-makers’ “commitment to their causes and their enthusiasm for promoting the problem (After all, it’s a big problem!) may lead them…to make the numbers seem more dramatic, even more compelling” (Best 2001: 62).
The last strategy Loseke identifies is claiming at the right time. Claims-makers do not portray "a claim when the audience members literally do not see or hear" the claim. Claims-makers strategize when to publicly discuss their claims so that the timing can help advance the claim’s cause and improve the likelihood the audience will accept their claim.
Claims-makers construct their claims with their audience in mind and strategize how to get their claims appreciated by their target audience. They do this by establishing certain frameworks they believe will be most effective for their claim.
Claims-makers must give meaning to the facts by constructing a social problem frame, which has several components. The diagnostic frame constructs the meaning of the condition. The motivational frame constructs the reasons why audience members should evaluate the condition as intolerable. The prognostic frame constructs the solutions to the problem (Loseke 2001:59).
These three frameworks allow the claims to be interpreted and given meaning by the individuals that receive the claim.
The diagnostic frame constructs "a condition as a particular type of condition and this, in turn, constructs blame and responsibility" (Loseke 2003: 59). The diagnostic frame answers the "audience members' questions about how to understand the meaning of the condition and what causes it" (Loseke 2003: 61). It provides a simplified way to view the social problem by providing a cause for the social problem and an explanation as to why the problem is important. For example, Luker’s foundational work Abortion & the Politics of Motherhood (1984), discusses the diagnostic framework of abortions claims-makers. “While militants on both side would have us believe that the abortion debate is actually very simple, such simplicity is a necessity…for them [the claims-makers]. A necessity because we [the audience] must believe that the things about which we are passionate are either clearly good or clearly bad” (Luker 1984: xiii). Luker explains that “militants” of a cause attempt to deduce a social problem to simplistic forms of good and evil in the diagnostic frame.
The motivational frame encourages the audience to participate in their cause by appealing to the audience members' logic and emotions. They appeal to logic by relating cultural themes to the social problem at hand. Cultural themes are "generally accepted ideas about how the world should work" and such themes as individualism, nationalism, capitalism, family, fair play, and religion (Loseke 2003: 64). Claims-makers construct the conditions, or social problems, as violating to one or more cultural theme. Claims-makers also appeal to people’s emotional through the assigning of victims and villains. Victims are the people who are not responsible for the harm they experience" and villains are the things or people responsible for the harmful condition or intended harm the victims (Loseke 2003: 78). The establishment of victim makes the audience feel sympathy for the victims and thus they are compelled to help. Audience members blame the villain and then either try to punish or to rehabilitate them. Press and Cole (1999) found that the victims and villains in the abortion debate are identified primarily on television. The pro-choice movement constructed a heroine figure that fought for women’s rights in men’s world. In contrast, the pro-life movement constructed the mothers as one who “slept around,” thus unfit mothers are the villain in abortion and the fetus as the victim (Press and Cole 1999: 69-75).
The final framework is the prognostic frame, the goal is "changing the world order to eliminate the intolerable condition, to help the victims, to punish or rehabilitate villains" (Loseke 2003: 97). The prognostic frame lays out the specific actions for motivated people in order to resolve the social problem.
Applying Loseke’s Social Construction Theory, one can better assess pro-life and pro-choice claims, and how they affect society as a whole. This research of abortion attitudes intends to analyze what social factors construct Saint Mary’s students’ abortion beliefs, whether their views have changed over time, and what current attitudes of Saint Mary’s Women are prevalent.
For this study, interviews were conducted with 13 current students at Saint Mary’s College, six freshmen and seven seniors during the fall 2006 semester. The interviews consisted of 14 open-ended questions regarding personal demographics, how abortion was presented to the individual, how they perceived abortion, if their views of abortion have ever changed, and do they know anyone who has been had an abortion. The interviews ranged in time from between four to twenty minutes, with an average time of approximately ten minutes. The interviews were recorded using a microphone on a laptop computer and then transcribed. The name of the interviewee’s were omitted from the transcriptions and replaced with a number for confidentiality purposes. Field notes were also taken during the time of the interview to supplement the recordings.
The online student directory was used to identify the sample. A list of the active students within the first-year class and the senior class, that the interviewer did not know, was created. A random number program was then used to generate seven random numbers for the freshman class and then again for the seniors. The selected students were individually contacted via e-mail and asked if they were willing to participate in the research. Those unwilling were removed from the list and a new student was chosen through the same random selection process. The thirteen students that agreed to participate were interviewed at a time and location convenient for the participant. First-year and senior students at Saint Mary's College were chosen as the sample group in order to compare how four years of a liberal arts education has affected a student’s view of abortion.
Student selection process occurred four times in order to replace those unable to participate. Student participation was more problematic then originally believed. The goal of obtaining seven seniors was reached, but the first-year sample only consisted of six women. Of seven the senior students, six were 21 years of age and one was 22. All of the senior respondents were white. Four of the seven respondents identified themselves as Roman Catholic, one as United Methodist, and one identified herself as Episcopalian. Two identified themselves as Republican, one as Democratic, one as Moderate, and three women had no party affiliation. Of the six first-year students, five were white and one was Hispanic. All of the first-year respondents were 18 years old Roman Catholics. One first-year described herself as Republican, one as Democratic, and four women had no party affiliation. As a whole, the sample is largely white, Roman Catholic women with no political affiliation.
FINDINGS Saint Mary’s College is an all women’s college, where both religion and women’s advancement are equally emphasized. As a result, these educational priorities to teach Catholic faith and women’s rights occasionally create conflicts for students in certain issues, such as abortion. As described, student interviews provided data to discover how these women are socially constructed in their attitudes toward abortion and for some, how associated perceptions of conflict may be resolved.
Respondents’ Introduction to Abortion
Eleven (84.6%) of the thirteen respondents first learned about abortion in a classroom setting. Of these eleven students, the majority generally discussed abortion in a religious context because most of the respondents went to Catholic schools or attended Sunday school if they went to public schools. One first-year student explains that the first time she learned about the issue was in a catechism class. While learning the Ten Commandments, the issue of abortion was addressed when the class reached the sixth commandment: “Thou shall not kill.” This was a very typical experience for the women interviewed. Another first-year student explained her Catholic exposure to the abortion issue. “They (religion teachers) taught us their side, the bad things about it, and how it is killing a life - it was sad.”
Abortion was initially presented in a religious education environment for the majority of women interviewed, and there was a similarity in the way that the women verbally described their attitudes about abortion. When the respondents described the Catholic view of abortion, words such as “killing”, “murder”, “terrible”, and “bad” were regularly used. Words used to describe the Catholic view of the fetus were “innocent life”, “little baby”, “victim”, and ‘living being.” These two severe yet consistent sets of conditions showed a significant bias that may be associated with discourse on abortion in the Catholic Church. These conditions also may have dissuaded the respondents from accepting abortion as socially acceptable or morally permissible. The pro-life Catholic view appears to be a major agent of socialization, concerning initial views toward abortion.
Formulating Attitudes of Abortion: the Impact of Family and Religion
Many interviewees attributed their family experience as a major factor in their views of abortion. Eleven of the thirteen (84.6%) respondents stated that following their initial realization of the abortion process, they often discussed the issue with their parents, and particularly with their mothers. Of those eleven, five specifically stated that their mother taught them the most about the subject. As one first-year respondent stated, “My mom taught me the most about abortion. She said it should be your decision, but we really don’t believe in it because of our religion.” A connection between mothers and daughters to share information and concerns about abortion may relate to a perception that abortion is a women’s issue. Mothers may want to address abortion with their daughters, woman-to-woman.
Many first-year respondents recognized that they share similar abortion attitudes with their parents, until they came to Saint Mary’s College. One first-year respondent described her views of abortion and how her family’s attitudes attributed to views. “I learned the most about abortion from my parents. I mean I always knew what it was, not the process or anything, but it was just one of those things where I knew my parents were pro-life.” When asked what her views of abortion were she also explained that, like her parents, she was pro-life, except in the case of rape and incest. Later in the interview, she was asked if her views had ever changed over time. She responded, “Not really, I mean, I haven’t really thought about it, I just really always thought pro-life.” Using this woman as an example, one can see how their families socially constructed respondent attitudes toward abortion. Specifically, this case shows that the influence of the respondent’s parents on their social construction is important to understand and consider.
Most of the respondents’ family settings were greatly influenced by their religion, usually being Catholic. This influence could be seen in the Catholic pro-life stance on abortion reflected in their parents’ view of abortion. One first-year student stated “I believe the Catholic faith is definitely against it, and after having conversations with family, I know it’s definitely something my family is personally against.” The manifestation of the church’s stance on abortion within the family setting was a common pattern in the interviews.
The Consequence of Personal Experience on Family’s Attitudes
Another factor in a family’s attitudes toward abortion were their personal experiences with the issue of abortion within their family. One senior discussed how the issue of abortion affected her family on a personal level. One of her family members was a victim of rape, but instead of having an abortion, she delivered the baby and gave it up for adoption. She explains how her family member said, “giving birth to her child was the best way to get rid of the feelings from her rape. She felt that the birth healed her from the rape.” By witnessing a family member adhering to the pro-life stance, it strengthened her already pro-life stance for no tolerance of abortion. This same senior also had two aunts’ advised by their professional doctors to undergo abortion procedures. During their pregnancy, the doctors told them that their children had anomalies and their babies may not survive. Both aunts gave birth to healthy children. “My aunt who was told that her child would have Down Syndrome, ended up having a perfectly healthy baby.” My cousin is ten years old now, with no signs of Down Syndrome. He’s actually in the gifted program at his school.” Her other cousin has autism, but the mother has no regret for declining the doctors advice. “We love her and wouldn’t have it any other way.” This exposure to the issue of abortion directly in her family reaffirmed her belief in the Roman Catholic pro-life stance.
Another senior respondent’s aunt was told that her child had severe birth defects and would probably not survive. The doctor also expressed concern that there may be great risks to her health if she delivered the baby. With advice of her doctor, her aunt decided to go through with the abortion. This personal experience is what the respondent believes was the greatest factor in her attitude toward abortion. When asked what her stance on abortion she said, “I’m not pro-choice or pro-life, I’m in between. I’m not for killing babies, but I do believe that women have the right to choose…having a family member go through it definitely makes you decide how you really feel.” The right to choose has been very important in her family setting and has therefore, influenced her attitudes toward abortion.
When comparing the views of first-year students with seniors, all the seniors reported that their attitudes toward abortion had changed in their lifetime, in one way or another. Five of the seven seniors (71.4%) particularly attributed their change in attitudes to the environment at Saint Mary’s College, and of these five, two (28.6%) women specifically mentioned women studies classes they had taken as contribution to attitudinal changes. Among the first-year students’ responses, four (66.7%) reported that their views of abortion had never changed over time. The two (33.3%) first-year students who stated that their views had changed expressed that it was a consequence of education on the subject. One first-year respondent in particular said that even though she has only attended Saint Mary’s for about three months, Saint Mary’s had already altered her views of abortion.
I use to be totally against it. But probably a month ago all the sudden, I mean I don’t think its right, but at the same time, it’s a women’s body and its just, during the 1st month or so, I mean it’s still bad to me and I would never do it, but I am not as judgmental towards people that do because obviously they have their reasons.
Saint Mary’s had altered her opinion on the larger issues of abortion. A senior respondent also expressed a similar attitude change since attending Saint Mary’s.
They (her views towards abortion) have become more liberal over the course of my time here (Saint Mary’s College) actually. My parents have instilled the idea of pro-life, ‘you shouldn’t have an abortion,’ but here, I don’t have a particular political affiliation, but I am involved with the peacemaker social justice group on campus, so a lot of the people I have been spending time with and discussing this with are pro-choice and that has influenced me over the years.
Saint Mary’s College Mission Statement is dedicated to continually assessing “the complex needs and challenges of the contemporary world.” This mission promotes women to examine all issues and to develop an individual attitude even on issues like abortion. This type of environment influences many women similarly to the senior respondent. A different senior respondent explains a similar change in view.
I have always been going back in forth, struggling with the Catholic views concerning abortion, but I also took a women’s studies class here, and seeing that, that side of it, it made me think about the other point of view.
This student is faced with a conflict between her family’s Catholic views and issues of women’s rights that she has discussed in certain Saint Mary’s classes. Saint Mary’s fosters an environment that promotes a diverse education, so that women, like the respondent stateed above, understands many different points of view, or different social constructs, concerning an issue.
Respondents’ Current Attitudes Toward Abortion
A senior respondent quoted earlier, stated: “I’m not pro-life or pro-choice. I’m between.” This idea of neither pro-life nor pro-choice was consistent through-out the interviews. The word “pro-life” was used by three seniors and two first-years, and even when they used the word “pro-life” two seniors and one first-year student added exceptions such as “except in the case of rape and incest.” No respondent identified herself as “pro-choice.” Instead of using this vocabulary, two seniors and one first-year student stated that it was “the women’s right to choose.” Two seniors and one first-year student expressed that although they would not have an abortion, they disagreed that it should be illegal. Two first-year students described that they believed abortion was killing an innocent life. The pro-life movement uses this very strong language. The respondents, however, also avoided the actually terminology “pro-life” and in general avoided the label as either pro-life or pro-choice. This avoidance appeared very purposeful and was seen throughout the interviews, as the respondents prefered not to be associated with the extreme groups such words may portray. There may be other reasons why respondents did not identify themselves as pro-choice. First, at a Catholic institution, identifying yourself as pro-choice may cause unwanted conflicts. Another reason may be that each one is neither pro-life nor pro-choice, and therefore, truly stand somewhere in between. This middle ground suggests that many do not agree unconditional abortions, but find that abortion should be an option in certain circumstances. One senior respondent describes this middle ground:
I hate to see any abortions, but I do think that are some instances where it is necessary, maybe to save the mothers life if she should choose it, or late term pregnancies, I don’t like that all, but I think to save the mothers life, or some in some instances, maybe she was raped, I guess to me that’s her choice and she needs to make it. I think its bad to put a blanket over all abortions. I don’t think that’s right.
Some students find that abortion is situational and that one rule to dictate all abortions is not “right.”
The issue of abortion allows sociologists to explore how individuals socially construct contemporary issues. In the United States abortion is a religious and political that is incredibly controversial. With so many conflicting views available, how does one formulate a personal attitude? This research indicates that within the Saint Mary’s Community, family is the most significant influence on the social construction of abortion, followed by religion. The family’s religious attitudes towards a subject were taught to the women in the sample during their childhood, which in turn shaped the women’s attitudes.
By applying Loseke’s (2003) model of claims making, abortion as a social construct can be better understood. The Catholic Church is a claims-maker, proclaiming that the issue of abortion is an issue of morality. The Catholic Church establishes accusations that abortion is “killing innocent life” in order to persuade the target audience abortion is a social problem. As shown in the findings section, the majority of women were initially introduced to the issue of abortion from a claims-maker with a Catholic perspective on the issue. When they were introduced, the claims-makers, such as Catholic schoolteachers, shed a negative light on abortion, only showing a one-sided view. The abortion issue was originally presented in a diagnostic framework; oversimplified with a “clearly good or clearly bad” (Luker 1984: xiii) resolution to abortion. The Catholic Church attempts to persuade children that abortion is an uncomplicated and straightforward issue that is comparable to “murder” and morally unacceptable.
Parent’s act as models to their children and therefore children often adopt the same morals as their parents. Understanding this, the Church targets families as their audience through their claims that abortion is an issue of morality. However, people may reevaluate childhood morals as they develop, particularly when they are placed in an environment focused on a liberal arts education and individuality. Saint Mary’s College provides an environment that may, at times, contrast the family setting that students have been previously exposed. This exposure to a new environment, and consequently new claims, allows students to question the morals they had adopted without questioning earlier in their life.
Students were exposed to new claims that may have contradicted earlier, family thought. One senior respondent explains how influential the contradicting claims were in her assessment of her abortion attitudes. She described how the Women’s Studies Program at Saint Mary’s College presented the pro-choice claim, which allowed her “think about the other point of view.” Women in a college setting are now are now coming to terms with various points of views. Pro-choice claim-makers present their claim as a “right” and “independence,” which is very appealing to women trying formulates their own personal attitude separate from their parent’s ideas and morals. Pro-choice also portrays the victim as a mother, an image that women in college can sympathize with. Using these ideas independence and a victim mother, the
these extreme, atypical occasions are often presented as the typical situation. Pro-choice claims makers attempt to normalize these dramatic situations in order to gain support for their claim.
The college environment allows many individuals to move away from prescribed morals and thoughts of their parents, to develop individual ways of thinking. However, the majority of respondents did not totally disregard their original pro-life stance. Rather, the respondents usually blended pro-life and pro-choice claims, to create their own individual “middle ground” attitude.
Further research needs to be conducted on Saint Mary’s College students to in order to obtain a more accurate sample of women. Also, it would be helpful to conduct more in depth interviews, which examine the student’s social construction process. In addition, research could be conducted to better understand the claims-making process of both the pro-life and pro-choice groups. Interviews with advocates from each party and content analysis of propaganda provided by these groups would further information and understanding about their claims-making processes.