by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
The Culture Wars have clearly shifted. In 2004, eleven different states voted on ballot initiatives that would make the legal definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. In all eleven states, those ballot measures passed. The slimmest margin of victory against same-sex marriage occurred in Oregon, where it passed by fourteen points. In the other ten states, it passed by at least twenty points. Ten and a half years later, after the Obergefell decision in June 2015, same-sex couples can marry in all fifty states. Gay marriage is clearly in the rearview mirror for large swaths of the country.
But the other major pillar of the culture wars, abortion, has not budged as a central issue in American social policy. In fact, it’s fairly clear that the movement to severely limit abortion or make it completely illegal is stronger now than it has been in years. As of 2019, seven states had made it illegal to have an abortion performed after eight weeks gestation, but these laws have not gone into effect as they are waiting for a Supreme Court review. However, what really piqued my interest by a nice piece from Alex Morris at Rolling Stone about the Christian Right’s obsession with Donald Trump and how a lot of that seems predicated on the issue of abortion.
She sits down to speak with her religiously conservative mother and aunt about their politics and theology. Morris’ aunt said: “Abortion was a slap in his face, and here we’ve killed 60 million babies since 1973. I believe we’re going to be judged. I believe we are being judged.” It’s not that I hadn’t heard that same sentiment before, but it got my gears turning: How many people are actually opposed to abortion in every circumstance? And, how many people would not place any restrictions on abortion?
The General Social Survey includes six scenarios asking if the respondent thinks that a woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion in that circumstance. Here they are:
If the family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children?
If the woman’s own health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy?
If she is not married and does not want to marry the man?
If she became pregnant as a result of rape?
If there is a strong chance of serious defect in the baby?
If she is married and does not want any more children?
I simply defined someone as 100% pro-choice if they favored allowing abortion in each of the six scenarios, while someone was 100% pro-life if they opposed allowing abortion in any of the six situations.
So, what share of Americans are completely pro-choice? That answer is 24.4% of the GSS sample dating back to 1972. What about people who oppose abortion in every situation? Well, that’s much, much smaller. Just 4.9% of Americans can be identified as completely opposed to abortion in the six aforementioned circumstances. That’s worth reiterating – just one in twenty Americans are 100% pro-life on abortion.
Of course that was not enough to scratch my intellectual itch. I wanted to see how those numbers had shifted over time. So, I calculated the share of both Republicans and Democrats that were identified as completely pro-choice and completely pro-life and visualized it over the course of the last 46 years. There are lots of things here that I didn’t expect.
First, this graph reinforces the point – very few Americans (of either party) are completely opposed to abortion. For Democrats the share was just over six percent in 1972, but it’s dropped in half by 2018. For Republicans the climb has been upward, with just under 5% being totally opposed to abortion in 1972 compared to 8.5% of Republicans in 2018.
The blue lines (denoting people who favor legal abortion in all scenarios) is a much different story. Consider this: the share of Republicans who wanted to place no restrictions on abortion was the same as the Democrats in the 1970’s. Then, support for that position began to drop. However, the decline was much steeper for Republicans – 40% of Republican were totally pro-choice in the 1970’s, but that fell to just under 15% by the mid-2000’s, only to rebound about five percentage points recently.
The Democrats have seen a slightly different pattern. From their high of 37% completely pro-choice in the early 1970’s, they dropped to just above 20% in the mid-2000’s. There was a big bounce back for Democrats, though. Now about 35% of Democrats could be called completely pro-choice. The gap between two parties on the 100% pro-choice group is now the largest it’s ever been, with Democrats being twice as likely to always favor abortion than Republicans.
One would have to think that an individual’s view of abortion is based, in large part, on their religious tradition. The data largely confirms that, but there are some interesting results. Of the group of people who favor a woman’s choice to an abortion in all six scenarios, just over a third are religiously unaffiliated. However, the group that shows up the second most is Catholics. Obviously, that’s a function of the size of the Catholic population in the United States, but it also speaks to the fact that lots of Catholics are diametrically opposed to the Church’s teaching on abortion. That comes even more into focus when considering that despite the fact that evangelicals made up nearly a quarter of the sample, they are just 12.7% of 100% pro-choice respondents.
When looking at those who are 100% pro-life, it’s basically evangelicals, Catholics, and then everyone else. Nearly half of all 100% pro-life people are evangelicals, while 30% are Catholics. This illustrates clearly that opposition to abortion is much more of an evangelical issue than a Catholic one. It also illustrates how divided rank and file Catholics are on abortion. Half of all Catholics are 100% in favor of abortion or 100% opposed to it. It’s hard to hold a coalition together when it’s that far divided.
Finally, I wanted to create an interactive dashboard. What share of Democratic women favor abortion only in the case of rape? Well, the Shiny application will display that for you. Some combinations are very rare, which will display some funny results, though. So just be aware of that. You can access the dashboard by clicking here.
When I think about abortion, I am often reminded of Richard Rorty’s essay, “Religion as Conversation Stopper.” Rorty contends that a terrific way to end a debate about politics is to say something like, “supporting is required by my understanding of God’s will.” Rorty wonders how to continue the conversation. “Gee! I’m impressed. You must have a really deep, sincere faith”? (pg 3). There’s just no way to move on from a statement like that. The issue of abortion feels the same way. There are some who would not fault a woman for choosing abortion in any of the six scenarios, while there are others who see no scenario when it should be legally permissible. These two sides yell at each other and completely dominate the national conversation while 70% of American stand in the middle. I see no end in sight.
Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. The syntax for this post can be found here.