Beyond pro-choice and pro-life: A Q&A with WWU's Mary Hunt

Assistant Professor Mary Hunt of the Health and Human Development Department studies several aspects of sexual and reproductive health. But an area of enduring fascination is the complexity of people’s attitudes about abortion.

“You probably know someone who has had an abortion — and yet, it’s not a readily shared experience, which has an effect on our attitudes and opinions,” said Hunt, who directs Western’s Research in Repro and Sexuality Lab.

Hunt’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Arkansas explored whether people’s attitudes about abortion access changed depending on what the kind of information they received. For example, did seeing a short video about a woman explaining why she wanted to terminate her pregnancy change people’s opinions about whether abortion should be restricted? Western Today recently chatted with Hunt about her research on this divisive topic.

WT: Tell us about your Arkansas study.

I was living in Arkansas at the time and the state is very hostile toward abortion, with lots of legislative restrictions. Yet we know people’s attitudes about abortion are very complex; the majority of people support abortion under at least some circumstances, and many people don’t know about the numerous laws that affect abortion access. I wanted to understand Arkansas residents’ knowledge of local restrictions and their stances on whether they felt those restrictions should be law in Arkansas. This was prior to the overturning of Roe (which allowed Arkansas to enforce its trigger ban to prohibit abortion entirely) so abortion was still legal in Arkansas at the time of the study. I designed an educational video with two parts: a “news anchor,” who was a graduate student at the University of Arkansas, who outlines the main restrictions in the state, and a woman who tells her story of getting an abortion in Arkansas. Some people only saw the informational portion and some people saw the informational portion and the personal testimonial. We measured people’s knowledge of and support for each restriction prior to the video, directly after the video, and again after several weeks. We recruited people online through social media, reddit, and Craigslist.

WT: What were the results?

We had 369 Arkansas residents complete the whole study. The majority of then identified as “pro-choice,” which isn’t surprising because convenience samples in sexuality surveys are often susceptible to self-selection bias; people who are deeply uncomfortable with sexuality topics will not complete the survey if given the choice. We saw that knowledge increased over time for both groups (people who saw the personal testimonial after the news story and people who did not) and that increase was higher among testimonial-watching participants. Support for local restrictions decreased slightly over time but did not differ by video condition.

WT: Were the results surprising?

Somewhat surprising to us was the duality of people simultaneously saying they were “pro-choice” but continuing to support restrictions on abortion, even after learning about them. It could be because they do want to restrict access, or they did not interpret the restrictions as burdensome. Many restrictions are framed as a safety precaution. For example, a mandatory waiting period of one to three days between an initial visit to the clinic and the procedure may be interpreted as a way for folks to have adequate time to “consider their decision.” In actuality, it delays care and increases costs and by the time people seek an abortion, they have already deeply considered their decision. If people are travelling to get an abortion in a state with a 48-hour waiting period like Arkansas, they had to wait around for two days, which means either driving home and then driving back or needing somewhere to stay and take off work, etc. Many restrictions disproportionately affect BIPOC and low-income people.

WT: What does your research say about the complexity of people’s opinions about abortion access?

Our study adds more evidence to the idea that a binary view of stances “pro-choice vs pro-life” does not encompass most people’s abortion attitudes. It also encourages folks to tell their abortion stories because with personal connection, people’s learning may be affected.

WT: What makes the topic of abortion so interesting to study?

One of the things that makes abortion so interesting to study is its ability to foster discussions with students or friends or colleagues. In giving people space to speak about their ideas or experiences related to abortion, I have had really lovely, personal, and interesting conversations.

WT: Abortion, especially now, is a particularly divisive topic. Why is it so important that we talk about it?

With abortion, there’s this phenomenon called “The Prevalence Paradox,” which speaks to this feedback loop in which abortion seekers feel stigmatized and scared so they don’t often share their abortion stories, which leads people to think that abortion is not that common or only happens in extreme situations like health emergencies, which in turn keeps people feeling stigmatized or scared to share their stories. Abortion is common. One in four pregnancy-capable people will have an abortion in their lifetime. It commonly occurs for non-emergency or “mundane” reasons like not being ready or in a financial situation to support a child. Especially in the current economy, this is a huge factor. People have been having abortions for a long time and they will continue to have abortions. So it’s threaded in all of our communities—you probably know someone who has had an abortion—and yet, it’s not a readily shared experience, which has an effect on our attitudes and opinions.

WT: You’ve taught many classes on abortion. Is it different, teaching in Washington compared with Arkansas?

With any classroom, no matter where you are, there’s a diversity of opinions and personal experiences that lead to how they interact with material about abortion. The facts don’t change though—it’s common, safe, and legal in the US (however, at this point, not in all states). It does make a difference to teach students who grew up in a state with laws that protect personal reproductive decisions and expand abortion access. If you grow up with access as a norm, that affects how you conceptualize your options. In 2020, myself and some colleagues in the Counseling and Wellness Center launched a large-scale sexuality survey for Western students.

Of our total 1,000 student sample, 579 students indicated they engaged in sexual behaviors that could result in pregnancy, even if using protection. Of those, 97% said they did not want to become pregnant/did not want their partner to become pregnant at this time. Then when asked “considering how you feel about a pregnancy right now, if you (or your partner) got pregnant…”, 50.1% said they would want to terminate a pregnancy, 22.1% said they would lean toward terminating a pregnancy, 18.8% said they weren’t sure, 4.2% said they would lean toward keeping a pregnancy, and 4.9% said they would want to keep a pregnancy. I believe these results would be different with students in Arkansas.

WT: What are the next big unanswered questions about abortion?

The next frontier of studying abortion is seeing what is going to come of the overturning of Roe, how people’s opinions are going to be affected, and how abortion seekers in states where abortion is now illegal will navigate obstacles to obtain healthcare.

Mary Hunt smiles at the camera on a deck of a house; behind her are woods