The Story

A new poll finds that various majorities of Americans support Roe v. Wade and oppose restrictions on abortion clinics. Is the pro-life cause losing ground because of Americans’ lack of moral imagination?

The Background

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that 60 percent of Americans support the Supreme Court upholding Roe v. Wade while only 27 percent want the abortion precedent overturned. This majority support is even found in the 26 states where abortion bans and restrictions would be implemented if Roe is reversed.

A significant majority (58 percent) also oppose state laws that make it harder for abortion clinics to operate, compared to only 36 percent of Americans who support such restrictions. And two-thirds believe the court should overturn a law in Texas that authorizes private citizens anywhere in the country to sue anyone who performs or assists in an abortion in Texas after about six weeks of pregnancy.

The poll also found that 75 percent of Americans believe the decision whether a woman can have an abortion should be left to the woman and her doctor. Only 20 percent say that abortion should be regulated by law.

Even narrow majorities of Republicans (53 percent) and conservatives (52 percent) say the decision should be between a woman and her doctor, and white Americans who self-identify as evangelicals are divided on the question, 49–47 percent.

What It Means

For the past several decades, pro-life advocates (including me) have claimed a majority of Americans oppose abortion and that this truth would be revealed if only pollsters would frame their questions correctly. That illusion is becoming harder to maintain.

The reality is that a majority of Americans both support keeping abortion legal and a majority of Americans would likely agree, if they thought about it consistently, that abortion is morally wrong based on their beliefs and convictions about life and justice. The problem is that underdeveloped moral imaginations lead some people to support abortion even when they know it is wrong.

Moral imagination is defined as the mental capacity to create or use ideas, images, and metaphors not derived from moral principles or immediate observation to discern moral truths or to develop moral responses. In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith described how we use moral imagination to understand other people’s perspectives and to make moral judgments. The Encyclopedia Britannica summarizes Smith’s view:

Through an imaginative act, one represents to oneself the situation, interests, and values of another person, generating thereby a feeling or passion. If that passion is the same as that of the other person (a phenomenon Smith refers to as “sympathy”), then a pleasing sentiment results, leading to moral approval. As individuals across society engage their imaginations, an imaginative point of view emerges that is uniform, general, and normative. This is the viewpoint of the impartial spectator, the standard perspective from which to issue moral judgments.

Consider how this applies to the abortion debate. We use our moral imagination to understand the “situation, interests, and values” of a woman with an unwanted pregnancy. We can sympathize with the feelings she might have, such as fear, frustration, or shame.  Most people can relate to such sentiments in a way that causes them to feel compassion and sympathy. This is especially true of pro-lifers, and one of the primary motivations for the pregnancy resource center movement.

How would we respond if faced with an unintended and unwanted pregnancy? Would we want the government telling us what to do with our bodies? The answer many Americans settle on—75 percent according to this recent poll—is that they would not. We conclude that if, as a matter of conscience, we would not want the government telling us what to do with our bodies, then we should not require it of others.

However, what we were listening to was not our conscience (a God-given and God-directed faculty) but rather the “impartial spectator.” In his book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, Russell D. Roberts explains the difference between conscience and the impartial spectator:

This impartial spectator sounds a lot like our conscience. But Smith’s contribution is to provide an unusual source for that conscience. Smith doesn’t invoke our values or our religion or any principles that might inform our conscience to produce feelings of guilt or shame at our misbehavior. Instead, Smith is saying that we imagine being judged not by God, and not by our principles, but by a fellow human being who is looking over our shoulder.

The impartial spectator can be useful in helping humanity conform to natural law. But it can also lead us to act immorally when it is driven by what Scripture calls the “fear of man” (Prov. 29:25).

The oft-tried solution of pro-lifers is to generate sympathy for the other person involved in an abortion: the unborn child. It’s not an approach we should abandon, of course, because it is moral and has been marginally effective. But we need to become more aware of the reason it is not as effective as it should be: people lack fully formed moral imaginations.

It does not take much moral imagination to sympathize with a pregnant woman (for which we should be especially grateful). Even if we’ve never been pregnant or do not have the ability to become pregnant, we can imagine ourselves in her place and recognize the importance of her bodily autonomy. But we have a much more difficult time imagining ourselves as an unborn child even though we were all once in that situation. We have difficulty mustering the same sympathy for the unborn child’s bodily autonomy, although the consequences for the child far exceed the consequences for the woman.

The result of this failure of moral imagination is that when the interests of the child and mother are pitted against one another, the “impartial spectator” tends to shift the balance of sympathy to the woman and justify whatever decision she makes, even when the consequences are unjust and evil.

Unfortunately, there is no easily implementable solution for tipping the scale back in favor of the unborn. But simply being aware of the “sympathy gap” can be useful in helping us develop a more effective pro-life apologetic. And Christian support for abortion might be changed by increased preaching and teaching about how the “fear of man” can be replaced by the fear of God.