The politics of abortion

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I wrote the other day that if Roe v. Wade were reversed, probably only three jurisdictions—Utah, Louisiana, and Guam—would criminalize abortion. That tends to be supported by the Survey USA poll that shows "pro-life" and "pro-choice" opinion in each state. Utah and Louisiana are Nos. 1 and 2, 61 percent and 57 percent antiabortion respectively. (Guam, a territory, is not included in the survey.) In the following states, between 51 percent and 55 percent are rated as "pro-life": Arkansas, Idaho, Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. So I suppose it's possible that their legislatures would vote to criminalize abortion (though it's also possible that the Democratic governors of West Virginia and Tennessee would veto such laws).

A couple of other points about this list:

  • Three of these states have high black percentages: Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. That's a reminder that many black voters oppose abortion. And all of these states have median incomes below the national level.
  • The states that rank the most "pro-choice"—Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York—have higher percentages of Catholics than the national average. Back in the 1970s all of us in the political analysis field assumed that the strongest opposition to abortion came from Catholics. Obviously that's not the case anymore—except in Louisiana (and Guam). The other most heavily "pro-life" states are heavily Protestant or, in the case of Utah, heavily Mormon.
  • The most "pro-life" state carried by John Kerry is Pennsylvania. There you have a lot of older voters and, outside metro Philadelphia, a culturally conservative atmosphere. The most "pro-choice" state carried by George W. Bush is Nevada. There you have the nation's biggest gambling (sorry, gaming) industry and, outside Las Vegas's Clark County, legalized prostitution.
  • Overall, Survey USA says the country is 56 percent "pro-choice" and 38 percent "pro-life." Yet in six of the eight presidential elections since Roe v. Wade came down, the winner was the more antiabortion of the two candidates. (Jimmy Carter was more antiabortion, in my judgment at least, than Gerald Ford.) And the one less antiabortion candidate who won, twice, was Bill Clinton, who said he wanted to make abortion "safe, legal, and rare."
  • How to explain this? I think the voters have realized, subliminally anyway, that abortion was not going to be entirely criminalized again in the vast majority of states. And they do favor, by wide margins, limits on abortion, including parental consent laws and a ban on "partial-birth" abortion. Some liberals have warned that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, that will put Republicans on the defensive, since they will be seen as supporters of criminalization of abortion and most voters will be opposed to that.

    It's possible that we would see some of that, in some states. But efforts to criminalize abortion are unlikely to do anything but sputter in the large majority of states. The issue will quickly come to be seen as irrelevant in most. Some pro-choice voters and leaders may actually believe that a reversal of Roe v. Wade would produce widespread criminalization of abortion. But the more clear-sighted of them, I think, understand that it would not. What they are interested in is less facts on the ground than the exaltation and celebration of the right to abortion as an abstract idea.