The idealization of motherhood can undermine women’s abortion rights, researchers say

Benevolent sexism predicts attitudes toward abortion, with this being largely explained by attitudes toward motherhood, according to a recent study published this July in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The study provides evidence that the idealization of motherhood can undermines women’s abortion rights.

Abortion attitudes are often simplified into a choice between either “pro-life” or “pro-choice”. However, a large amount or research has demonstrated that it is much more complex. It has been argued that gender role attitudes, especially the views regarding the appropriate roles of women in society, may be a good predictor of a person’s position in the abortion debate.

It has been argued that women are suppressed via two complementary ideologies: hostile sexism, which punishes norm-violating women; and benevolent sexism, which highly admires women who conform to traditional gender roles. Despite often appearing to be a positive perspective on women, benevolent sexism is inherently restrictive, and it has been suggested that it should predict people’s attitudes toward abortion.

Furthermore, one key aspect of this is motherhood, which is often regarded as an essential component of being a woman. For example, the ideology of benevolent sexism would be expected to meet the decision to terminate pregnancy, and reject the traditional gender role of motherhood, with criticism.

The research, led by Yanshu Huang of the University of Auckland, involved two studies. Study 1 used information from a nationwide study of attitudes and values in New Zealand (12,299 responses). The questionnaire was completed twice, with a one-year interval, and measured ambivalent Sexism and attitudes toward abortion. For Study 2, 309 students completed questionnaires which directly measured the relationship between ambivalent sexism, abortion attitudes and attitudes toward motherhood.

The results of Study 1 showed that benevolent sexism predicted attitudes toward abortion an entire year later. Importantly, these results emerged while adjusting for participants’ gender, religion identification, political orientation, and support for equal rights.

Study 2 extended these findings by showing that the relationship between benevolent sexism and support for abortion was fully mediated by attitudes toward motherhood.

The results provide evidence that ideologies can influence political policy, and consequently, the idealization of motherhood can undermine women’s rights. Importantly, although benevolent sexism promotes positive views towards women, it appears to do so at the cost of their reproductive rights.

“Together, these results reflect the inherently political nature of gender role attitudes, and, perhaps more importantly, how the idealization of motherhood ultimately undermines women’s rights. Our results also help explain the persistence of opposition toward reproductive rights in society by demonstrating the insidious effects subjectively positive views of women (i.e., [benevolent sexism]) have on women’s reproductive choices,” the researchers concluded.


  1. Very bizarre article with a very bizarre headline. A positive idea of motherhood is a threat to abortion rights? This is what our social sciences have become (and why they’re now a joke).