There are two main ways of justifying support of abortion in relation to the potential personhood of a fetus/embryo.

  1. Between conception and birth(or some time before), fetuses/embryos are not individual people, they are dependent parts of a woman's body and thus, during that time, it doesn't make sense for them to be protected. It is vitally important that bodily autonomy of women fully allow them to do as they wish with any part of their body and thus abortion is permissible. For Example
  2. Between conception (or some time after) and birth, fetuses/embryos are persons deserving of protection, but the government should not force people to give up their bodily autonomy for the benefit of another person and thus abortion is permissible. For Example.

In the United States, roughly what proportion of people believe that abortion should be permissible, even if fetuses/embryos are people? If actual statistics are difficult or impossible to come by, I'd be interested in other proxies like where a rough majority of politicians or activists fall.

Note: I'm only interested in the population of people who think abortion should be legal in this question. Obviously people who think it should be illegal have very different views on the matter and this is a complicated enough subject without adding their views of this problem.

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    I think you're going to have a difficult time finding research to support an answer to this question. There is a more nuanced view, that the status changes gradually between conception and birth, and I expect that most people who support abortion rights fall into that camp.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 20:16
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    Then perhaps category 1 should be reworded, because the "between conception and birth" construction implies the view that a viable fetus is not a person. But that's somewhat beside my point, because viability is not the only thing that people take into account in considering the ethics of abortion. The general question is interesting (that is, about the proportions of abortion rights supporters adhering to different reasoning). I just don't think that it's answerable in this specific form.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 20:28
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    I think you are definitely making a false dichotomy between (1) and (2), for example you're missing something like: "decisions about 'personhood' during fetal development are arbitrary independent of religious arguments, therefore a woman should have agency in making that determination." I think you would find many pro-choice people that would still consider murder of a pregnant woman to be worse than murder of a single person. Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 20:34
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    I'm thinking about it, but I'm not sure what you're trying to get at here. Are you asking in relation to, for example, the fifth amendment? If so, you may want to clarify that you're specifically talking about legal personhood as opposed to a (perhaps more amorphous) ethical concept. Words often have different meaning in different legal contexts, and it's reasonable for someone to believe that a fetus is a person for some ethical purpose while still believing that the fetus does not fall within the scope of the fifth amendment.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 20:38
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    @lazarusL That's quite the straw man rephrasing of what I said. I'm saying some people (for example, me) realize that determining "personhood" in this context is a red herring that can never be decided without appeals to religion. In other cases, like race or plants/animals, it is not controversial because we can agree on the boundary without religion ("skin color is not relevant to personhood"; "plants are not people"). Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 20:46

3 Answers 3


Frame challenge: it doesn't matter, because those are inconsistently applied, not just by society, but frequently by the same people in many contexts, not just this one.

  1. Personhood means no killing: we execute criminals (some of whom may later turn out to be innocent), allow killings in self-defense, have military engagements (sometimes with innocent civilian casualties), etc. Even many right-to-lifers are okay with abortion in cases of rape, incest, endangerment of the mother. We as a society are apparently a-OK with killing certain people whose personhood is not in question, even sometimes innocent people.

  2. Bodily autonomy: you are not generally allowed to sell yourself into slavery, sell your organs, use illegal drugs, sell your sexual services, etc. We as a society are apparently just fine with dictating what one can and cannot do with their body.

This is a hard, nuanced problem.

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    This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review
    – JJJ
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 9:45
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    @JJJ I'm challenging the frame of the question, and this is too long for a comment. Statements like the ones the OP references are a motte and bailey: something that gets trotted out to win arguments rather than a legitimate belief about first principles. Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 11:50
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    I understand. I'm not sure if frame challenges are allowed / accepted on Politics.SE. Maybe a good idea to make a meta post (I searched, but haven't found any yet) about it outlining what a frame challenge is and how they work. Note that my 'delete vote' doesn't work anyway because you have enough up votes. ;)
    – JJJ
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 11:53
  • @JJJ I didn't take offense, your votes are yours to do with as you wish. I thought frame challenges were ok, maybe I was wrong? Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 11:58
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    Upon reflection, I think this answer actually engages in the motte and bailey tactic mentioned in the comments. The death penalty is based on the actions of the convicted and the accused is given a trial, sharp distinctions from abortion, which advocates commonly want to be the sole discretion of a single person. The exceptions that many pro-lifers are willing to accept are also extraordinary circumstances where the mother has been deprived of agency or is faced with the unenviable choice of giving up her own physical life/suffering severe physical debilitation or allowing her child to live.
    – jpmc26
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 17:14

Knowing a little bit about polling, I can tell you straight off that your question doesn't work as a polling question. Pollsters know that you can get different results by re-wording the question, so for accurate polling you need straight forward questions. Your question isn't very straight forward.

roughly what proportion of Pro Abortion/Pro Choice people believe that abortion should be permissible, even if fetuses/embryos are people?

For example, and I mention this purely to indicate the problem with poling. If you ask people the following:

"does government spend too much money" question will get "yes" 80% of the time. But get into details. But get into details, should we cut money to schools, close firehouses, close hospitals, cut money for cancer research, cut money to NASA and stop the plan to go back to the moon, should we cut Medicare and Social Security and 80% of the people will be against most of that.

Basically, 60% of the people end up against what they say they are for when the question is asked from the other side. That's one problem with polling.

In addition, looking for percentages is problematic when re-wording the question changes the percentage.

And you complicate things further when you say "the person" begins at conception. The more common way that question is asked is "does life begin at conception" and that polls pretty close to 50/50.

47% here

52% here

Should we be surprised that the Christian site gets 5% higher than the news site? Probably not. There are ways to target an audience and get different results and I'm happy to split the difference and say the number is about 50/50 on whether life beginning at conception. I'm pro choice by the way and I believe life begins at conception.

"Person begins" is a little more vague. Ask people at what age does a person begin and you'll probably get a range of answers. Your question ignores that range of answers and that's bad polling. The 47% link above says that 62% believe life has begun within the first 3 months. No mention of personhood though.

In a sense, your comment does a better job of asking the question than your question does, when you wrote:

I'm definitely thinking about the ethical concept. Liberal democracy is founded on the moral idea that there is such a thing as a person deserving of some degree of freedom and protection. We define humans as people regardless of skin color. We define plants and animals as not people. I don't quite understand how something can be amorphously quasi-person, which might be my problem

Most people would agree with a lot of this. People, for example, can get arrested or fined for abusing animals. It's legal to kill a mouse in your apt if you don't want mice, but put a video online of killing a mouse for fun and you can (and people have) faced legal trouble for that. The law is, in many ways, designed to be considerate of others, and our ethics is obviously in that direction as well. Compassion for the fetus is a real and valid ethical argument, and I don't mean to compare the fetus to an animal, I mention animal cruelty as an example only.

But the legal abortion question gets tricky because rights for the fetus takes rights away from the child bearer and that's a legal quandary. When the question was brought to the supreme court on whether a woman should have the right to choose, the supreme court said yes, a woman should have the right to choose. (Roe Vs. Wade). Ironically, Norma McCorvey, the woman who used the pseudonym Jane Roe, later regretted her decision. It's by no means an easy decision. Nobody should say otherwise. There is legal validity to the rights of the woman as well. It's ignorant to suggest otherwise and the two rights are in conflict and there's no way around that.

The answer to that conflict might be easy for you, but I've known women who've had abortions. It's been a difficult choice for them, often met with sadness and regret. Even people who are pro life, when faced with a pregnancy they didn't feel able to handle, have, more often than you'd think, opted for abortion. It's interesting to see how different it is when it happens to them and I have seen this play out. Pro life women often do see it as a choice when faced with unwanted pregnancy and some of them do choose abortion.

Questions like can I handle this or not? The physical burden, the emotional burden, can I raise this child, will I have to give him up for adoption do come up and they aren't easy. Whether it's ethical to require a woman, by law, to have their child is worth asking, and that's what the pro choice movement is about. The right to choose. Many feel that choice is natural right.

The days of back alley abortions and coat hangers, because doctors could lose their license wasn't the high-ground of ethics either. There is an undeniable ethical morality to pro-choice too. That shouldn't be hard to see.

So, back to your question as you wrote it:

In the United States, roughly what proportion of Pro Abortion/Pro Choice people believe that abortion should be permissible, even if fetuses/embryos are people? If actual statistics are difficult or impossible to come by,

This is two questions asked as one. You've just written the 2nd question into an assumption, but no good poll would ask a question that way. Polls need to be as simple and straight forward as possible. Too long or wordy or assumption based and you run into manipulated polling results. This article explains that, though you have to sign-in to read it.

"Even if fetuses/embryos are people" is both scientifically ambiguous and legally false. 10%-20% of embryo's spontaneously abort. It seems, to my logical mind, little different if it's spontaneous or done by early surgery, IUD or pill very early in the pregnancy.

To ask your question, you'd need to make it two questions, ask first "when does the person begin" - at conception and offer, yes, no or probably add a not sure option.

Then ask, are you pro life or choice? (Yes/no), and you'd get 6 sets of answers.

Yes, a person begins at conception / Pro life. Yes, a person begins at conception / Pro Choice No, a person doesn't begin at conception / pro life No, a person doesn't begin at conception / pro choice Not sure when humanity begins / pro life Not sure where humanity begins / pro choice.

I don't believe you'll find results to your question because I've never heard it asked. The question "does life begin" and "does a person begin" could change the output and it's far more common to ask "when does life begin".

But knowing how polarized people are, you're likely to find a sizable block in the "person begins at conception" and "Pro life" in one corner and "Person doesn't begin at conception and pro choice" in the other corner - the two corners staring angrily at each other . . . with much smaller numbers in the other 4 buckets. (Bucket is the correct term).

6 sets of combinations may seem overly complicated, but that's the honest polling approach to your question.

When you say this:

rough majority of politicians or activists fall.

I think we know where activists land, because activists tend to be unsubtle and outspoken about what they believe. But do you mean pro choice or pro life activists?

When you say politicians, do you mean pro choice politicians or pro life politicians? Generally (but not universally) democrats for the former, republicans for the latter.

Politicians will often speak to their audience and work for their constituency. If you want to know what most politicians really think, they often keep those cards close to their chest. We can see the bills they support, but not what's in their hearts and minds.

Donald Trump for example was very pro choice, but he knew he'd have no chance of wining the republican party as a pro choice candidate, so he ran as pro life as soon as he got into politics, despite being "strongly pro choice" just a few years earlier.

Finally, I want to add, Trump, who I'm not a fan of, expressed what I expressed in my comment above. He hates abortion, but he's pro choice. Nobody is pro abortion. People are pro choice. You writing the words pro abortion proves that you don't understand the other side at all.


That was probably longer than I'd meant it to be.

  • "There is legal validity to the rights of the woman as well. It's ignorant to suggest otherwise and the two rights are in conflict and there's no way around that." I totally wasn't trying to say that. That is exactly the ethical worldview in (2) from my question.
    – lazarusL
    Commented Jun 12, 2019 at 13:37
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    Your whole answer is founded on a failure of prepositional logic. The hypothetical pollsters that the question was asking about wouldn't be asking one question, they'd be asking two: "Do you believe that fetuses are people?", and then, if yes, "Do you think that abortion should be allowed?"
    – nick012000
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 4:57
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    I don't think it's useful to act as if the question's wording is bound to become part of a poll, even though only a poll could answer it. We know what was meant and that's enough. That said, this is an excellent overview of the political landscape around this issue.
    – Grault
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 19:56
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    @Grault I think the wording is problematic because polling is problematic. Straight forward questions can be polled. "Are you for or against gun control" can be polled. But I'm not sure conditional questions can be polled because the wording at that point in the game can rig the results. Even if we understand what's being asked, studies show that different phrasing of the same question yields different poll results. That's problematic in arriving at a numerical percentage answer to a question like this. I'm open to being wrong, but I don't think the way it was asked is pollable.
    – userLTK
    Commented Jun 20, 2019 at 21:57
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    @nick012000 I'm not sure where your "divide it into two questions" disagrees with me, when I said that would be the better approach as opposed to a single question, though I felt a "not sure" should be added to the does a person begin at conception due to that being a little bit of an unfamiliar rewording on the more commonly asked "when does life begin". Including a not sure option gets us 6 sets of combinations, not 4 but you're still basically saying what I'm saying. 6 sets of combinations would be the way to go. Admittedly, my answer got too long, I kind of cringe looking at it now.
    – userLTK
    Commented Jun 20, 2019 at 22:08

According to Pew:

Today, a 58% majority of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37% think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

And YouGov did a survey on the Longmont Attack showing:

...the vast majority of Americans (66%) think that fetuses in the womb are people. Only 16% think that fetuses are not people.

This is far from perfect (methodologically) but at the least, there are some figures you can draw:

  • A small ~16% of pro-choice people don't think a fetus is a person.
  • An equally small ~17% of people who think Abortion is never okay thought a fetus is a person as well.

This all relies on the methodology of YouGov to be spot on. Otherwise, people's answers may have been affected by the emotion surrounding the Longmont Attack. The biggest issue here is that people's thoughts on when "life" begins and when the fetus is a person can get totally separate answers. As a fig tree is alive but no one would grant it protections we grant humans under the law.

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    "An equally small ~17% of people who think Abortion is never okay thought a fetus is a person as well." This seems unlikely, as it would indicate that many fewer pro-life people think that a fetus is a person than pro-choice people. I tried to find the original statement in the link you gave, but I don't see it. Could you fix any misstatements and perhaps show where you found this? I'm guessing it's supposed to be "is not a person" but am reluctant to make that edit without more proof than that it looks wrong.
    – Brythan
    Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 21:35
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    While these are statistics, they don't make much distinction between time in the womb. As some have noted in other comments, opinion may be different based on what stage in the pregnancy we're talking about.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 21:53
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    It is interesting that YouGov's survey asked about fetuses but not about embryos. Also, their overall result about abortion right (56% against) is in opposition with Pew's figure (58% pro).
    – Evargalo
    Commented Jun 12, 2019 at 8:42
  • A useful marker would be at which point the Catholic Church will insist that a dead foetus should get last rites and be buried properly in a grave.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jun 12, 2019 at 23:00

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