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What the regional divide over abortion tells us

by | Aug 1, 2013

By Dave Andrusko

regionaldiffsinabortionI’d meant to get to the very interesting survey by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that was released Monday but didn’t. My apologies.

At one level the survey of 1,480 U.S. adults reached a conclusion all of us would have anticipated: there is a sharp regional divide on abortion which has grown. But there’s a great deal to ponder in the survey beyond that growing chasm.

The single most useful interview that I heard (and then read) came from Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, talking about the survey with NPR’s Renee Montagne. But to make sense of their conversation, you have to know, in broad strokes, what the survey is supposed to have found.

Here are two of the principle conclusions in this survey which tracks the change in opinion between 1995-96 and 2012-13. The really interesting part is explaining why.

#1. Contrary to the lead in almost all stories, nationwide opinion on abortion has not remained “mostly static.” It’s changed—and in a pro-life direction—which often gets hidden by the way the question[s] get asked.

What is true is that the gap between the six New England states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont) and the eight South Central States (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas) has grown.

The question is posed in an unsophisticated manner, but while support for abortion in New England has gone up 5 percentage points since 1995-96, it’s gone down by 12 percentage points in the South Central States.

Among New Englanders, the split is 75% who say abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances to 20% who say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

By contrast 52% of those who live in the South Central States say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases compared to 40% who say abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances. (Don’t forget, when more specific questions are asked, you get more pro-life results.)

Thus the gap is 35%: 75% of New England states adults in favor of most or all abortions versus 40% of South Central State adults.

#2. Almost ignored is the large change in the Midwestern states of Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas and the Dakotas. In 1995-96, support for all or most abortions was at 52% versus 42% opposition to abortion in all or most cases. Now the numbers are tied at 47%.

But why and what does it suggest about the future? The Christian Science Monitor concluded

“Exactly why that shift has occurred is open to conjecture. Some analysts point to technology, such as growing use of sonograms early in pregnancy, as one explanation. The South has long been known for its high levels of religiosity, particularly evangelical Christianity.”

If technology is a key ingredient, then it is fair to speculate that support for essentially unlimited abortion on demand will necessarily shrink. But to return to Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, NPR’s Renee Montagne.

Montagne doesn’t want to hear what this survey is saying, especially that “opposition to legal abortion has actually increased [in the South Central States]. How do you explain that? Read Dimock’s response carefully:

“Well, you know, there are a lot of factors associated with abortion attitudes; religion being one of the biggest ones. But some other characteristics and demographics also come into play. I think what you’re seeing is some policy debates that have cast the issue in different dimensions – talking about the specific timing or the safety at clinics and so forth – that may be able to take people who are personally torn over the issue of abortion, and cast it in ways that show approaches to limiting it that may fit with their conflicting views.”

Put another way, blunt questions that do not reach where people are at (or responses that do but don’t get emphasized—see opposition to late abortion where babies feel pain) miss that most people are open to commonsense limitations, such as not tearing pain-capable unborn children apart or ignoring what goes on in abortion clinics.

That becomes even clearer in the following exchange:

“MONTAGNE: Well, yeah. I wonder if state laws are tracking public opinion. I mean, you have Texas, the latest– mostly Southern and Midwestern – to ban abortions after the 22nd week. And in those states, almost half of residents believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. Are the laws following opinion or are the laws influencing opinion?

“DIMOCK: That’s an excellent question and I, you know, you would think that the laws are following opinion – and I think that’s true to a large extent. But I also think that there’s a way in which the reverse can be true, again, which is that, you know, many people are conflicted over the issue. When they hear of an option that’s presented to them like restricting abortions after 20 weeks or raising the standards at clinics, we find that many of those specific restrictions sound a lot more appealing to people than a more general ban on abortions; that they can sort of fit those restrictions into the way they look at the issue, and feel comfortable that that’s a reasonable restriction.

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“So, it may be that many of the people in states that are really having that intense argument over these kinds of policies that that argument in and of itself is affecting the way the way they look at the issue.”

Well….yes! Presenting all or nothing proposals misses that people have their own moral calculus. And I think it’s implicit in what Dimock is saying that the more people are presented with commonsense limitations, the more they say, “Hey, I agree with that!” That’s why Democrats fight so furiously, in Congress and in the states, not to allow these specific limitations to be even discussed. Passage of pro-life laws could become habit forming.

Finally, as a friend suggested, if you are talking about all the legislation that is being passed, it’s not JUST that more Republicans are controlling more legislative bodies and the governor’s office, although that is obviously key.

It’s like a volcanic eruption. Pressure had been building for years but while there was plenty of energy (desire to pass), there was no outlet (ability to enact). Now there is this huge pent-up energy=passage of pro-life legislation.

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Categories: Polling