Women and Abortion: a Phenomenological Analysis

ABSTRACT - The purpose of this paper is to broaden our understanding of this controversial topic by examining abortion from a consumer-behavior perspective. To accomplish this goal, the results of a phenomenological study are briefly described based on abortion versus birth decisions concerning 92 different pregnancies. Interview data provide widespread support for most parts of three a priori themes, and suggest that women use a different moral standard when making birth versus abortion decisions than the public debate suggests.


Ronald Paul Hill, Maggie Jones Patterson, and Kate Maloy (1994) ,"Women and Abortion: a Phenomenological Analysis", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 13-14.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 13-14


Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University

Maggie Jones Patterson, Duquesne University

Kate Maloy, University of Pittsburgh


The purpose of this paper is to broaden our understanding of this controversial topic by examining abortion from a consumer-behavior perspective. To accomplish this goal, the results of a phenomenological study are briefly described based on abortion versus birth decisions concerning 92 different pregnancies. Interview data provide widespread support for most parts of three a priori themes, and suggest that women use a different moral standard when making birth versus abortion decisions than the public debate suggests.


Abortion is the most frequently performed surgical procedure in this country, with approximately 1.6 million abortions performed annually (Davis 1985; Olasky 1992). Twenty-five percent of all pregnancies are terminated in this manner, and approximately 20 percent of all U.S. women have had a legal abortion (Mueller and Major 1989). As noted by Stotland (1992; p. 2078), the "heat of the conflict [over abortion] tends to melt boundaries between medicine and philosophy, between church and state, between demonstrated fact and personal belief." Issues of fertility and sexuality are highly charged in all societies, and abortion represents a symbolic "meeting place" for some of our most contentious views of these topics (McDonnell 1984). Unfortunately, this "heat" has reduced the many different opinions and attitudes on abortion to just two antithetical positions - pro-life and pro-choice (Maloy and Patterson 1992).

Several scholars believe that pro-choice and pro-life positions, which depict abortion in good versus evil terms, fail to capture the complexity of the issue and the ambivalence of the American public in general and consumers of abortion services in particular (Maloy and Patterson 1992; McDonnell 1984). For example, a New York Times/CBS News Poll found that only 31 percent of those surveyed fully supported either pro-life or pro-choice views (Dionne 1989). The remaining 69 percent believed that abortion should be legal depending upon the circumstances faced by the woman. The remainder of this paper addresses this issue through a review of the history of abortion in this country, and a brief discussion of the results of a recent phenomenological investigation.


The term "abortion" is derived from the Latin word "aboriri," which translated literally means "to perish." The oldest known reference to abortion is in Chinese medical texts that date back to around 2737 B.C. (David 1988). Within the American colonies and the United States, abortion was legal from 1607 to 1828. Under the common law of this period, abortion was allowed as long as it was performed with the consent of the woman and before she was "quick with child" (quickening marked the time when the first movements of the child were felt by the woman, which occurs approximately at the end of the first trimester). However, even after quickening, abortion usually was considered only a misdemeanor.

The earliest legislation dealing specifically with the legal status of abortion in the United States was passed in the states of Connecticut and New York during the 1820s and was designed to protect the health of women with unwanted pregnancies from damage by abortion (David 1988). Despite these laws, abortionists continued to operate publicly and typically were acquitted by juries. However, after the founding of the American Medical Association in 1847, an organized drive was launched to professionalize medical training and gain public acknowledgment of the status of physicians. Physicians sought to discredit midwives and all practitioners who did not share their standards. The issue of abortion helped consolidate and focus this movement, and physicians launched an antiabortion campaign in opposition to "greedy" abortionists, whose lack of medical training allegedly put women at risk.

By 1900, as a result of this movement, states throughout the United States enacted legislation that made abortion illegal unless there was a threat to the woman's health as determined by a physician (Ginsburg 1989). Thus, women seeking to terminate pregnancies for social or economic reasons were forced to seek more dangerous illegal abortions (Messer and May 1988). Typical descriptions of this era are summarized by Gloria Steinem (in Bonavoglia 1991, p.x-xi):

There were stories of sexual abuse; for instance, a woman who had been forced to have sex with the abortionist before he would operate. There were stories of race and class hatred; for instance, a woman who had been bargained withCshe could have a legal abortion, but only if she agreed to be sterilized. There was humiliation at the hands of those in power; for instance, men on a hospital board who made a young woman describe in detail how she got pregnantCand then denied her a legal abortion anyway.

By the 1960s, several environmental influences emerged simultaneously, and they heavily influenced the movement to legalize abortion. This decade of social upheaval resulted in "the successful culmination of the family planning movement..., the `sexual revolution,' the civil rights and antiwar movements, the movement for `zero population growth,' and, of course, the rebirth of the women's movement" (Staggenborg 1989, p. 211). Further, advances in medicine removed many of the threats to a pregnant woman's life, such as tuberculosis and cardiovascular and renal diseases, leaving few legitimate rationales for the performance of abortion by physicians. With its "cover story" gone, the medical profession questioned its legal position and began an active campaign to liberalize abortion laws (Glendon 1987).

Two landmark opinions by the United States Supreme Court in 1973, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, struck down all state restrictions, and opened the door for "abortion on demand" during the first two trimesters of a pregnancy (Luker 1984). In the more famous of the two decisions, Roe v. Wade (410 U.S. 113), the Court held that "[the] right of privacy...founded in the Fourteenth Amendment's concept of personal liberty...is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." Since this right was deemed "fundamental," the states could intervene only to protect the health of the woman (e.g., after it becomes more dangerous for the woman to have an abortion than to carry the fetus to term) or the health of the fetus after it becomes viable (Linton 1989).

Many women's organizations greeted these decisions with elation, but Catholic and pro-life forces accused the Court of "opening the doors to the greatest slaughter of innocent life in the history of mankind" (Rubin 1982, p. 88). Subsequent efforts by those opposed to Roe v. Wade to amend the Constitution to change or overturn this decision were unsuccessful and largely have been abandoned. However, a parallel strategy to gain passage of state abortion statutes that are as restrictive as possible under the framework of Roe v. Wade has met with limited success (Annas 1989). For instance, the Court, in its recent ruling involving Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, let stand requirements that women seeking abortions be offered state-issued literature on fetal development, observe a 24-hour waiting period, and, for those under the age of 18, obtain permission from either one parent or a judge (Philadelphia Inquirer 1992).


Consistent with a priori expectations, the women in this study expressed that they experienced conflict during the decision-making process. Further, this ambivalence was typically associated with bonding between the woman and the fetus, which was a function of the informant's awareness of the physical changes happening within her and her embracing of these changes. Finally, these women often experienced a feeling that they had no choice regarding their abortion decisions; instead they felt that others' (including partners and health professionals) were making the choice for them. Contrary to predictions, the feeling of lack of choice exacerbated women's conflicting emotional reactions.

With regard to the abortion experience, the data revealed that a common hope among the informants was that abortion would transport them from their current discomfort and return them to their physical and emotional states that existed before their pregnancies. Consistent with expectations, the women who were conflicted about the abortion decision had more difficulty during and negative reaction toward the abortion procedure. Also, the treatment received by informants from abortionists impacted their abortion experiences. As predicted, poor or neglectful treatment led to negative reactions, both physical and emotional, during their procedures, and good treatment led to more positive experiences. This was the case for both legal and illegal abortions.

A priori expectations suggested the existence of both positive and negative reactions following an abortion. One reaction that informants revealed was a feeling of personal responsibility for the decision to abort, which interestingly occurred even if women felt that the decision to abort was not left to them. Further, longer-term negative reactions tended to exist among informants who experienced poor treatment during illegal abortions, conflict over the meaning of abortion, bonding with the fetus prior to their abortions, and ambivalence concerning the degree to which they wanted their pregnancies. Finally, results indicated that social support following the abortion was far less important in reducing post-abortion trauma than was a woman's sense that her right to choose during the decision-making process had been preserved.

In total, this research revealed (1) that a wide gap exists between the language of the public debate and that of private decision making; (2) that the language of private decision making reflects a moral standard used frequently by women yet virtually ignored in the public debate; and (3) that women who take charge of their own decisions cope better with the emotional aftermath, whether their decision is for birth or for abortion.


Annas, George J. (1989), "Webster and the Politics of Abortion," Hastings Center Report, 19 (March/April), 36-38.

Bonavoglia, Angela (1991), The Choices We Made, New York: Random House.

David, Henry P. (1988), "Overview: A Brief History of Abortion and Studies of Denied Abortion," in Born Unwanted: Developmental Effects of Denied Abortion, eds. Henry P. David, Zdenek Dytrych, Zdenek Matejcek, and Vratislav Schuller, New York: Springer Publishing, 9-30.

Davis, Nanette (1985), From Crime to Choice: The Transformation of Abortion in America, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Dionne, E. J. (1989), "Poll on Abortion Finds the Nation Is Sharply Divided," New York Times, April 26, A1.

Ginsburg, Faye D. (1989), Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in An American Community, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Glendon, Mary Ann (1987), Abortion and Divorce in Western Law, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Linton, Paul Benjamin (1989), "Roe v. Wade and the History of Abortion Legislation," American Journal of Law & Medicine, 15 (2&3), 227-233.

Luker, Kristin (1984), Abortion & The Politics of Motherhood, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Maloy, Kate and Maggie Jones Patterson (1992), Birth or Abortion? Private Struggles in a Political World, New York: Plenum Press.

McDonnell, Kathleen (1984), Not an Easy Choice: A Feminist Reexamines Abortion, Boston: South End Press.

Messer, Ellen and Kathryn E. May (1988), Back Rooms: Voices From the Illegal Abortion Era, New York: St. Martin's Press.

Mueller, Pallas and Brenda Major (1989), "Self-Blame, Self-Efficacy, and Adjustment to Abortion," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57 (6), 1059-1068.

Olasky, Marvin (1992), "Victorian Secret: Pro-Life Victories in 19th-Century America," Policy Review, 60, 30-37.

Philadelphia Inquirer (1992), "High Court Abortion Ruling Satisfies Few," December 27, C3.

Rubin, Eva R. (1982), Abortion, Politics and the Courts: Roe v. Wade and Its Aftermath, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Staggenborg, Suzanne (1989), "Organizational and Environmental Influences on the Development of the Pro-Choice Movement," Social Forces, 68 (September), 204-240.

Stotland, Nada L. (1992), "The Myth of the Abortion Trauma Syndrome," Journal of the American Medical Association, 268 (October 21), 2078-2079.



Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University
Maggie Jones Patterson, Duquesne University
Kate Maloy, University of Pittsburgh


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21 | 1994

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


To Touch or Not to Touch?: How Touch Influences Decision Confidence

Sang Kyu Park, University of Florida, USA
Yang Yang, University of Florida, USA

Read More


C8. Can Packaging Imagery Fill Your Stomach? Effects of Product Image Location on Flavor Richness, Consumption Quantity, and Subsequent Choice

Taku Togawa, Chiba University of Commerce
Jaewoo Park, Musashi University
Hiroaki Ishii, Seikei University
Xiaoyan Deng, Ohio State University, USA

Read More


It’s About Trust: The Diffusion of Deviant Consumer Behavior

Peter Voyer, University of Windsor

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.