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As recently as 1984, abortion was not a deeply partisan issue.
“The difference in support for the pro-choice position was a mere six percentage points,” Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, told me by email. “40 percent of Democratic identifiers were pro-life, while 39 percent were pro-choice. Among Republican identifiers, 33 percent were pro-choice, 45 percent were pro-life and 22 percent were in the middle.”
By 2020, Abramowitz continued,
73 percent of Democratic identifiers took the pro-choice position, while only 17 percent took the pro-life position, with 10 percent in the middle. Among Republicans, 60 percent took the pro-life position while 25 percent took the pro-choice position and 15 percent were in the middle. The difference in support for the pro-choice position was 48 percentage points.
This split was even wider, 59 points, among “strong partisans, the group most likely to vote in primary elections,” Abramowitz said.
Crucially, Abramowitz pointed out, opinions on abortion are also closely connected with racial attitudes:
Whites who score high on measures of racial resentment and racial grievance are far more likely to support strict limits on abortion than whites who score low on these measures. This is part of a larger picture in which racial attitudes are increasingly linked with opinions on a wide range of disparate issues including social welfare issues, gun control, immigration and even climate change. The fact that opinions on all of these issues are now closely interconnected and connected with racial attitudes is a key factor in the deep polarization within the electorate that contributes to high levels of straight ticket voting and a declining proportion of swing voters.
Some of the scholars and journalists studying the evolving role of abortion in American politics make the case that key leaders of the conservative movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s — among them Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly and Jerry Falwell Sr. — were seeking to expand their base beyond those opposed to the civil rights movement. According to this argument, conservative strategists settled on a concerted effort to politicize abortion in part because it dodged the race issue and offered the opportunity to unify conservative Catholics and Evangelicals.
“The anti-abortion movement has been remarkably successful at convincing observers that the positions individuals take on the abortion issue always follow in a deductive way from their supposed moral principles. They don’t,” Katherine Stewart, the author of the 2019 book “The Power Worshipers,” wrote in an email.
In 1978, the hostile reaction to an I.R.S. proposal to impose taxes on churches running segregated private schools (“seg academies” for the children of white Southerners seeking to avoid federally mandated school integration orders) provided the opportunity to mobilize born again and evangelical parishioners through the creation of the Moral Majority. As Stewart argues, Viguerie, Weyrich and others on the right were determined to find an issue that could bring together a much larger constituency:
As Weyrich understood, building a new movement around the burning issue of defending the tax advantages of racist schools wasn’t going to be a viable strategy on the national stage. “Stop the tax on segregation” just wasn’t going to inspire the kind of broad-based conservative counterrevolution that Weyrich envisioned.
After long and contentious debate, conservative strategists came to a consensus, Stewart writes: “They landed upon the one surprising word that would supply the key to the political puzzle of the age: ‘abortion.’”
In an email, Stewart expanded on her argument. Abortion opponents:
are more likely to be committed to a patriarchal worldview in which the control of reproduction, and female sexuality in particular, is thought to be central in maintaining a gender hierarchy that (as they see it) sustains the family, which they claim is under threat from secular, modern forces.
Abortion is among the most intractable issues dividing the parties, with little or no room for compromise.
On one side, opponents of the procedure argue that “at the moment of fusion of human sperm and egg, a new entity comes into existence which is distinctly human, alive, and an individual organism — a living, and fully human, being,” as the Center for Human Dignity puts it in the pamphlet “The Best Pro-Life Arguments for Secular Audiences.”
On the other side, abortion rights proponents contend, in the words of the Center for Reproductive Rights: “Laws that restrict abortion have the effect and purpose of preventing a woman from exercising any of her human rights or fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men.”
It wasn’t always this way.
Fifty years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in St. Louis approved what by the standards of 1971 was a decisively liberal resolution on abortion:
Be it further resolved, that we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.
This year, at a June meeting in Nashville, the convention demonstrated just how much has changed on the religious right when it comes to abortion. Members endorsed a resolution declaring, “We affirm that the murder of preborn children is a crime against humanity that must be punished equally under the law,” pointedly repudiating past equivocation on the issue:
We humbly confess and lament any complicity in recognizing exceptions that legitimize or regulate abortion, and of any apathy, in not laboring with the power and influence we have to abolish abortion.
Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth and the author of a new book, “Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right,” looked at conservative strategizing in a recent op-ed in The Guardian. In his essay, Balmer recounted a 1990 meeting of conservatives in Washington at which Weyrich spoke:
Remember, Weyrich said animatedly, that the religious right did not come together in response to the Roe decision. No, Weyrich insisted, what got the movement going as a political movement was the attempt on the part of the Internal Revenue Service to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies, including a ban on interracial dating that the university maintained until 2000.
In an email, Balmer wrote, “Opposition to abortion became a convenient diversion — a godsend, really — to distract from what actually motivated their political activism: the defense of racial segregation in evangelical institutions.”
The same is true, Ballmer continued, of many politicians who have become adamant foes of abortion:
At a time when open racism was becoming unfashionable, these politicians needed a more high-minded issue, one that would not compel them to surrender their fundamental political orientation. And of course the beauty of defending a fetus is that the fetus demands nothing in return — housing, health care, education — so it’s a fairly low-risk advocacy.
The reality in the 1970s was that the surging rights movements — rights for African Americans, women’s rights, reproductive rights, gay rights, rights for criminal defendants and for the mentally ill — had set the stage for what would become an explosive conservative reaction, a reaction that by the 1980 elections put Ronald Reagan in the White House for eight years, wrested control of the Senate from Democrats and elected a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats that wielded tremendous power in the House.
“There is a persistent association between abortion views and ethnoracial exclusion,” Bart Bonikowski, a professor of sociology at N.Y.U., wrote in an email:
What has happened is that both issue positions have become increasingly sorted by party, so that being anti-choice or holding exclusionary beliefs is a clear marker of Republican affiliation, whereas being pro-choice or defining the nation in inclusive terms signals Democratic identity. The same has happened to a wide range of other issues, from health care and voting rights to mask-wearing and vaccination during the Covid-19 pandemic — across all of these domains, policy views increasingly demarcate partisan identity.
David Leege, emeritus professor of political science at Notre Dame, has an additional explanation for the process linking racial animosity and abortion. In an email, he wrote:
For the target populations — evangelical Protestants — whom Viguerie, Weyrich, and Falwell sought to mobilize, racial animosity and abortion attitudes are related but mainly in an indirect way, through aversion toward intellectual elites. The people perceived to be pushing government’s role in equal opportunity and racial integration were now the same as those pushing permissive abortion laws, namely, the highly educated from New England, banking, universities, the Northern cities, and elsewhere.
In short, Leege wrote, “although the policy domain may differ, the hated people are the same.”
Michele Margolis, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, in her 2018 book “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity,” argues that “instead of religiosity driving political attitudes, the shifting political landscape — in which Republicans have become associated with religious values and cultural conservatism to a greater extent than Democrats — could have instead changed partisans’ involvement with their religious communities.”
If, Margolis continues:
Republicans and Democrats select into or out of religious communities in part based on their political outlooks, they will find themselves in more politically homogeneous social networks where they encounter less diverse political information. Rather than churches being places where people with different political viewpoints come together, religious communities may become more like echo chambers populated by like-minded partisans.
The power of partisanship to influence stands on abortion can be seen on the Democratic side by the “host of Democrats who have liberalized their views as they eyed the presidency — Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, and Dennis Kucinich among them” — as John Murdock wrote in “The Future of the Pro-Life Democrat” in the journal National Affairs.
Rachel Rebouché, a law professor at Temple, adds nuance to the argument that abortion serves as a roundabout vehicle to appeal to racial conservatives. Instead, she contends that anti-abortion and segregation are “explicit co-travelers, to be sure. But I think they also have different chronological origins and somewhat different original audiences.”
Abortion, she wrote by email, and “sex control, gender identities and patriarchy” are a set of “very strong themes that developed alongside private schools, with their ability to shape views of religion, sex, culture and race, and alongside welfare reform and criminal law enforcement, which always have had race at the center of those systems.”
In addition, Rebouché wrote, “Where I see synergies are conservative politics aligning with ideas about sex, sexuality, religion, family.”
Jefferson Cowie, a historian at Vanderbilt, argued in an email that “there are three dimensions to the question of abortion.”
The first, he notes:
is an obvious and genuine concern for fundamentalist Christian morality among the Southern polity. Some are clearly motivated by the obvious: they think abortion is wrong. Such views are a minority in this country, but they are highly concentrated in the South.
The second, he continued, is:
the politicization of the issue to rile up the electorate. This is less about policy and more about pure and simple voting harvesting. Obviously, there is very little support for neonatal care or curbing the death penalty, so “pro-life” is a ridiculous misnomer. They are less pro-life than they are pro-political power — their own.
The third, in Cowie’s view, is:
The overlooked part: the deep resonance of state and regional sovereignty. Regional politics is still defined by a resistance to federal authority. If the federal government can run any aspect of regional culture or politics, the logic goes, then they can run it all. This has been a concern on just about everything since Reconstruction, including lynch law, fair employment practices, the Brown decision, busing, prayer in schools, and abortion. This issue runs deep — consider the career of George Wallace who liked to say the federal government has put the courts in schools and taken God out. This is the remnants of the Lost Cause still blowing in the political winds.
Darren Dochuk, a professor of history at Notre Dame and the author of “From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism,” argued in an email that the strength of the opposition to abortion in the South grows out of the unique tensions in the region between notions of manhood and evangelical attempts to control the sins of men:
There has always been a tension in Southern life between the ideals of rugged masculinity and expectations of evangelical propriety. In the early 20th century, preachers and earnest parishioners did their part to rein in the worst excesses of Southern manhood, be they related to drink or sex or violence; waging war on sin was their calling, protecting home and hearth and securing Christian male headship of them, their main concern. This tension was also a dynamic one in that excessive sin also led to heightened evangelistic fervor; the greater the sin, the greater the salvation, meaning masculine indiscretions were in subtle ways allowed, even celebrated, among the churchly crowd as justification for an equally aggressive response.
“Since the late 1970s, however,” Dochuk wrote:
Southern evangelicalism as a whole has become more welcoming of the type of rugged masculinity that the Southern sinners of yesteryear often displayed. For theological as well as cultural and political reasons, the Southern evangelical majority, whose prescripts and sentiments now pervade all corners of Southern rural culture, has increasingly embraced a muscular Christianity that deems protection of home and hearth and all facets of family values and notions of life and liberty associated with them a cause worth waging with all the force and abandon required.
This accommodation is driven, according to Dochuk, by the fact that the enemy is now, in Southern evangelicals’ view, “an effeminate liberalism and its ‘secular humanism,’” which, in turn, means that:
even those leaders who might not display Christ-like temperaments or norms are welcome in the fold. In a sense, Southern evangelicals have jettisoned the New Testament for the Old Testament — revival for societal reconstruction — and carved out plenty of room for the rampaging politician who can impose his will (see Trump as well as lesser lights) in order to remake the nation in their image.
In this milieu, Dochuk observed:
The swashbuckling southern rural politician enjoys more freedom than ever to play hard even as he decries the sins of abortion and feminism; as saint and sinner, he’s been granted the right and freedom to lead the family values charge against Washington and its soft liberal elite.
In milder terms, Rebecca Kreitzer, a professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and two colleagues argue in “The Evolution of Morality Policy Debate: Moralization and Demoralization” that as an issue becomes both polarized and “moralized,” it become more difficult, if not impossible, to resolve. In contrast, when an issue become “demoralized,” as has been the case with gay marriage over the past two decades, it becomes increasingly likely to reach bipartisan consensus.
For 20 years, Gallup has asked, “Regardless of whether or not you think it should be legal, please tell me whether you personally believe that in general gay and lesbian relations are morally acceptable or morally wrong.” In 2001, 53 percent said morally wrong and 40 percent said morally acceptable. By 2021, however, 69 percent said gay and lesbian relations were morally acceptable compared with 30 percent who described such relations as morally unacceptable. The issue has been “demoralized” and has effectively disappeared from the national debate.
No such luck in the case of abortion. Over the same 20 years, Gallup asked whether abortion is morally acceptable or unacceptable. In 2001, 42 percent said the procedure is morally acceptable and 45 percent said morally unacceptable. Over those two decades, the numbers varied modestly year to year but effectively changed very little: In 2021, 47 percent said acceptable, 46 percent said unacceptable.
The bottom line: For at least the medium term, the abortion issue is here to stay. If anything, the Supreme Court 5-4 decision on Sept. 1 to refuse to block a Texas law prohibiting most abortions demonstrated that the issue will remain on center stage with no resolution in sight.