Partisanship Rules Everything – Abortion in 2020

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

It seems like a good time to give a “lay of the land” update on how religious groups approach many of the difficult areas surrounding abortion policy in 2020. It just so happens that the Nationscape survey contained interesting questions focused on a number of nuanced areas surrounding abortion. What makes Nationscape so valuable is its sheer size. The current iteration contains over 300,000 respondents, which affords huge sample sizes for even marginal groups in American religion. There are nearly 4,000 Mormons, 3,000 Muslims and Buddhists, and 1,600 Hindus.

Let’s take a broad look at the six abortion questions in the survey, which are visualized below. I also included error bars representing 84% confidence intervals – the comparison of any two is equivalent to a 95% t-test. A hi-res version is available here.

Beginning in the top left, support for making abortion illegal is consistently low. For many groups, just a quarter would favor a policy that banned abortion completely. For atheists and agnostics that share is around 5%. The outlier is evangelicals. Half of them would support this proposal – nearly double the overall average of 30%.

At the same time, support for making abortion legal at any time is lukewarm. Only three groups, representing less than 10% of the population, indicate majority support (atheists, Hindus, and Jews). On this dimension of abortion policy, evangelicals look much closer to other groups. Twenty four percent of Catholics support abortion at any time; it’s just ten points lower for evangelicals.

In terms of other restrictions on abortion, there seems to be a divide over whether employers can refuse to cover abortion services in their health insurance plans for employees. There is a significant divide among evangelicals by race on this question.

Support for abortion in the case of rape, incest, and life of the mother is robust among almost all religious groups. White evangelicals and Mormons are the clear outlier here, with less than half indicating support.

There is little desire for late term abortion among all Americans, though. Only two groups (atheists and Jews) evince clear support.

Moreover, many religious people feel that women should be required to get ultrasounds and undergo waiting periods before having an abortion procedure. This receives majority support from all Christian groups, however is opposed strongly by atheists and agnostics.

I wanted to break this down just a bit more so I specified a logit model with the “never permit abortion” question in one model and the “permit abortion anytime” question in another. I included controls for age, gender, race, and income. I wanted to see how education interacted with partisanship to shift views on abortion among the fourteen religious groups listed above. Oftentimes we would expect education may have a moderating impact on abortion as universities have ways of exposing students to both sides of an issue and to people who have different life experiences.

First up, the abortion on demand question. To get the obvious out of the way, Republicans are less supportive of permitting abortion at any time during a pregnancy and that doesn’t seem to change based on education. In some cases, a Republican who had a graduate degree indicates more support, but that lags behind a Democrat of the same faith tradition. White evangelical Democrats show a twenty point increase in support when going from the lowest level of education to the highest and that positive relationship also appears for non-evangelical Protestants, too.

Both atheist and agnostic Democrats show support increasing as education goes up, which is also true for agnostic Republicans but not atheist Republicans.

Now let’s shift the dependent variable to never permitting abortion with the same controls that were mentioned previously.

Things look a bit different here. For instance, education has very little impact on Christians who identify as Republicans. That’s especially true among evangelicals, although a highly educated Republican Catholic does show stronger support for banning abortion, but still below 50%.

Generally speaking, it’s notable how little education matters in this scenario and that’s true for both Republicans and Democrats. There are exceptions. For Republican atheists (there aren’t many of them), having higher levels of education does drive up support for prohibiting abortion to over 25%. But for agnostics, there is no real relationship between education and support for ending abortion.

Looked at more broadly, there is clearly very little appetite among most religious groups for making abortion illegal in this country. Only evangelical Republicans clearly support such a position.

I keep coming back to Tricia Bruce’s wonderful study out of Notre Dame, “How Americans Understand Abortion.” After she interviewed hundreds of subjects, she came away with a clear impression that the vast majority of Americans find themselves somewhere in the middle on the abortion debate. Few are comfortable with abortion without restriction, and not many want a policy that bans abortion entirely, either.

It’s also notable that education’s impact on abortion opinion has become largely muted – that seems to be a change from what we have seen in previous eras of social science research. This is just another area where partisanship swamps everything else – which means the hope for compromise or a change in opinion is more remote.

Given the changing makeup of the Supreme Court, it seems more likely than ever that abortion will be restricted (or possibly prohibited) in many states in this country. It appears that through either a quantitative or qualitative lens, that’s a proposition that would anger most Americans.

Ryan P. Burge teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. Syntax for this post can be found here.

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