What Really Drives Abortion Beliefs? Research suggests it’s all about sexual strategies
Martie Haselton, is a professor of psychology at UCLA College and Jaimie Arona Krems, is an assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University.
Many people have strong views on abortion, especially in the wake of the United States Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, revoking a constitutional right previously held by more than 165 million Americans.
But what really drives people’s attitudes towards abortion?
It is common to hear religious, political and other ideological motivations – for example, about the sanctity of life. If such beliefs were really driving anti-abortion attitudes, then people who oppose abortion might not support the death penalty (many do), and they would support safety net measures. social security that could save the lives of newborns (many do not).
Here, we suggest a different explanation for anti-abortion attitudes—one you probably haven’t considered before—from our field of evolutionary social science.
Why do people care what strangers do?
The evolutionary coin of the kingdom is fitness – getting more copies of your genes in the next generation. What distant strangers are doing likely has limited impact on your own physical condition. So from that perspective, it’s a mystery why the people of Pensacola care so strongly about what happens in the bedrooms of Philadelphia or Planned Parenthoods in Los Angeles.
The solution to this puzzle—and an answer to what drives anti-abortion attitudes—lies in a conflict of sexual strategies: People vary in their opposition to casual sex. People who are more “sexually restrained” tend to avoid casual sex and invest heavily in long-term relationships and raising children. In contrast, more “sexually unrestricted” people tend to pursue a series of different sexual partners and are often slower to settle down.
These sexual strategies conflict in ways that affect evolutionary fitness.
The crux of this argument is that, for sexually restricted people, the sexual freedoms of others represent threats. Consider that sexually restricted women often marry young and have children early in life. These choices are just as valid as the decision to wait, but they can also be detrimental to women’s career success and tend to make women more economically dependent on their husbands.
The sexual openness of other women can destroy the lives and livelihoods of these women by shattering the relationships on which they depend. Thus, sexually restricted women benefit from impeding the sexual freedoms of others. Likewise, sexually restricted men tend to invest a lot in their children, so they benefit from banning people’s sexual freedoms to avoid the high fitness costs of being cuckolded.
Benefiting from making sex more expensive
According to the social science of evolution, restricted sexual strategists profit from imposing their strategic preferences on society – by restricting the sexual freedoms of others.
How can restrained sexual strategists achieve this? By making casual sex more expensive.
For example, denying women access to safe and legal abortion essentially forces them to bear the costs of motherhood. Such increases in the price of casual sex can deter people from having it.
This attitude is perhaps best illustrated by a statement by Mariano Azuela, a judge who argued against abortion in Mexico’s Supreme Court in 2008: “I feel that a woman somehow has to live with the phenomenon of getting pregnant. When she does not want to keep the product of pregnancy, she still has to suffer the effects for the entire period.
Force people to “feel the effects” of casual sex, and fewer people will pursue it.
Also note that abortion restrictions do not increase the costs of sex in the same way. Women bear the costs of gestation, face the deadly dangers of childbirth, and disproportionately bear the responsibility of childcare. When women are denied abortion, they are also more likely to end up in poverty and experience violence from their intimate partner.
No one would claim that this is a conscious phenomenon. Rather, people’s strategic interests shape their attitudes in unconscious but self-beneficial ways – a common finding in political science and evolutionary social science.
Resolving embarrassing contradictions in attitudes
An evolutionary perspective suggests that common explanations are not the real drivers of people’s attitudes – on either side of the abortion debate.
In fact, the religious, political and ideological explanations put forward by people are often filled with awkward contradictions. For example, many of those who oppose abortion also oppose the prevention of unwanted pregnancies through access to contraception.
From an evolutionary point of view, such contradictions are easily resolved. Sexually restricted people benefit from the increased cost of sex. This cost increases when people cannot access legal abortions or prevent unwanted pregnancy.
An evolutionary perspective also makes unique – often counterintuitive – predictions about which attitudes travel together. This view predicts that if sexually restricted people associate something with sexual freedoms, they should oppose it.
Indeed, researchers have found that sexually restricted people not only oppose abortion and birth control, but also marriage equality, because they perceive homosexuality to be associated with sexual promiscuity, and to recreational drugs, likely because they associate drugs like marijuana and MDMA with casual sex. We suspect this list likely also includes transgender rights, public breastfeeding, premarital sex, books kids read (and whether drag queens can read to them), equal pay for women and many other concerns that have yet to be tested.
No other theory that we know of predicts these strange bedfellows.
Behind the link to religion and conservatism
This evolutionary perspective may also explain why anti-abortion attitudes are so often associated with religion and social conservatism.
Rather than thinking that religiosity causes people to be sexually restricted, this perspective suggests that a restricted sexual strategy can motivate people to become religious. Why? Several scholars have suggested that people adhere to the religion in part because its teachings promote sexually restricted norms. Supporting this idea, participants in one study said they were more religious after researchers showed them pictures of attractive people of their own sex, i.e. potential rivals for mating.
Sexually restricted people also tend to invest heavily in parenting, so they stand to gain when other people adhere to norms that benefit parents. Like religion, social conservatism prescribes norms that benefit parents, such as restricting sexual freedoms and ostensibly promoting family stability. With this in mind, some research suggests that people don’t just become more conservative with age. On the contrary, people become more socially conservative during parenthood.
Restrict everyone for your benefit
There are many answers to any “why” question in scientific research. Ideological beliefs, personal histories, and other factors certainly play a role in people’s attitudes toward abortion.
But so are people’s sexual strategies.
This evolving social science research suggests that restricted sex strategists benefit from everyone playing by their rules. And just as Judge Thomas suggested when quashing Roe v. Wade, this group could go after birth control and marriage equality.