What Do Anti-Abortion Folks Look Like Demographically, Religiously, and Ideologically?

by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

It’s more than likely the most important Supreme Court case in my lifetime: the overturning of Roe v. Wade means that each individual state gets to decide if and how it will regulate abortion inside its boundaries. According to NPR, that means that at least twenty states will effectively ban abortion in the coming weeks. When the draft of the Dobbs opinion was leaked back in early May, I put together a thread of graphs about abortion opinion from a variety of angles and came to a clear conclusion: an outright ban is not where most American are when it comes to the issue of abortion. 

But, now that Dobbs has been decided and many abortion clinics have been forced to shut their doors across the United States, who are the ones cheering this decision the most? Put simply: who favors an all-out ban on abortion and how does this subset of Americans compare to the general public? That’s the aim of this post –  a deep dive into a descriptive analysis of those who favor a total ban on abortion. 

The data comes from the 2020 Cooperative Election Study. The statement is simple enough: “Do you favor or oppose making abortions illegal in all circumstances.” When I post this question on Twitter, there is always someone in the replies who tries to parse this statement. They don’t know how to deal with the phrase “all circumstances.” After conducting surveys for more than a decade, I can say that the average survey taker spends about two seconds reading each question and just responds with their gut. In this case, they more than likely interpreting the question to mean, “I’m completely opposed to abortion.” In the 2020 CES that equals out to just under 20% of the American population. In a sample of 61,000 folks, that equals out to 12,093 individuals (weighted). So, my N size is just fine to proceed with this analysis. 

The folks who are completely anti-abortion are evenly divided between men and women  –  as is the sample overall. It’s notable that in a CBS News poll conducted on June 24 and 25, men were equally split over the question of overturning Roe, while two-thirds of women did not support the decision made in Dobbs. Thus, there’s a clear disconnect between the anti-abortion sample in the CES and the CBS News data. It’s important to note that in the CES data there’s no reason to believe that there’s a gender disparity among anti-abortion folks. 

There’s also a very small discrepancy between the racial composition of the American public at large and the subset of Americans who will be pleased with the state bans implemented due to the Dobbs ruling. Sixty-nine percent of Americans indicated that they were white on the CES, while it was sixty-six percent of those who opposed a total abortion ban. For Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians, the gaps are even smaller. In no case do the samples deviate more than two percentage points. In short, the racial composition of anti-abortion Americans almost perfectly reflects the general public.

However, there have to be some differences when it comes to religious tradition, right? Well, the discrepancies between the two groups is a lot smaller than one would assume. For instance, Catholics make up about 18% of the general sample, and just twenty percent of the anti-abortion subsample. For many smaller religious groups like LDS, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, there’s no statistically significant difference. Where they diverge, however, is in terms of Protestants and nones. While thirty-four percent of Americans are Protestants, they are forty-six percent of the anti-abortion contingent. At the same time, the share of nones in the general population was thirty-four percent in 2020, but was just twenty-one percent of those who opposed abortion entirely. So, there are some deviations, but they aren’t as large as I would have guessed. 

When it comes to religious observance, however, the religious gap comes into much sharper contrast. In the 2020 Cooperative Election Study, nearly half of folks opposed to abortion attend church at least once a week. That’s nearly double the rate of the population at large (26%). While thirty percent of the Americans never attend church, it’s only fifteen percent of those who would applaud the Dobbs decision. I think it’s fair to say that while religious tradition reveals relatively small gaps, that religious behavior among anti-abortion folks is much higher than in the public at large. 

Finally, a political scientist has to return to politics. Respondents to the CES were asked to indicate their political ideology on a seven point scale ranging from very liberal to very conservative with the halfway point of the scale being labeled “middle of the road.” Anti-abortion Americans are much more likely to say that they are conservative. In fact, thirty-four percent of the subset describes themselves as very conservative, compared to just fourteen percent of Americans in general. Sixty-three percent of anti-abortion Americans are conservative, it’s forty percent of the overall public. When it comes to the left side of the spectrum, eighteen percent of anti-abortion advocates see themselves as liberals, while it’s thirty four percent of Americans overall. 

Sometimes just doing simple descriptive analysis can be incredibly insightful and I think that’s the case here. There are clearly some areas in which anti-abortion folks are far out of step with the average American. They are much more likely to attend church on a regular basis and have a much higher propensity to say that they are politically conservative. However, the gaps when it comes to gender and race are non-existent. Also, the religious tradition of the anti-abortion subset does deviate from the general public but not by as much as many would have guessed. 

Ryan P. Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He is the author of The Nones and 20 Myths About Religion and Politics in America. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. Syntax for this post can be found here.

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