It's Not Whether Abortion Rights Activists Are Losing, It's Where

The Atlantic
It's Not Whether Abortion Rights Activists Are Losing, It's Where
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It's Not Whether Abortion Rights Activists Are Losing, It's Where

Public opinion about abortion is changing, but it's not as clear-cut as you might think. Time cover story in January announced that abortion-rights activists have been "losing" the battle since Roe v. Wade for 40 years. But the Pew Research Center released a study on Monday that shows while national attitudes about abortion have stayed relatively the same since the 1990s, regional attitudes are shifting in opposite directions. 

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Are abortion rights advocates losing? That depends on where you live. The Pew study shows that in the South Central part of the country, support for keeping abortion legal decreased from 50 percent in 1995-1996 to 42 percent in 2012-2013. South Central includes Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry just signed into law new restrictions on abortion. Conversely, over the same time period, that support has increased from 70 percent to 75 percent in New England. The South Central area and the Midwest were the only regions to experience significant drops in support. Support declined from 55 percent to 47 percent in the Midwest. The regional differences echo the 2012 electoral map.

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Unsurprisingly, where support has dropped, conservative lawmakers have been successful in passing abortion restrictions. In states with these bans on abortion at 22 weeks or earlier (including Texas, North Carolina, and North Dakota), 48 percent of people believe that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. In states that don't, only 36 percent of people feel the same. 

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In her Time's January cover story, Kate Pickert claimed that "fewer and fewer [Americans] are identifying themselves as 'pro-choice' in public opinion surveys." That might have been a reference to Gallup, which found Americans call themselves pro-life by 48 percent to 45 percent in 2013, while in 2011, they said they were pro-choice by 49 percent to 45 percent. But if you look at Gallup's abortion polling since the 1970s, it's fairly steady. 

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The Pew study shows it gets more complicated when you get beyond the national number. Fewer Texans are pro-choice, sure. But in every region but South Central and the Midwest, citizens' support for keeping abortion legal has increased or stayed about the same. 

Kirsten Powers echoed Pickert's claims in an article for The Daily Beast, published shortly after Wendy Davis attempted to filibuster a Texas bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks (Perry signed a version of that bill into law in July). Powers wrote that "most of the civilized world" finds abortions after 20 weeks to be "barbaric and abhorrent." In America, at least, that depends on who you poll. According to Pew, 54 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That figure's stayed mostly the same since the 1990s. The sense that support for legal abortion is dwindling comes from a couple regions of the country.

One interesting place to watch is Virginia. We tend to think of the state as being in the socially conservative South, and though it's voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections, it has a conservative state government. (Pew categorizes Virginia as South Atlantic, where support for abortion has dropped slightly, from 53 percent to 50 percent.) In 2012, Gov. Bob McDonnell abandoned signing a bill requiring a "trans-vaginal ultrasound" before an abortion after bill last year after massive protests in the state and national scrutiny. On Monday, the abortion-rights group NARAL released a poll showing that abortion is the biggest issue driving women to the ballot box in Virginia, where staunchly pro-life candidate Ken Cuccinelli faces pro-choice Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the governor's race. (Obviously NARAL has an interest in the result of this poll.) However the Virginia governor's race pans out, America will continue to be divided on abortion. Now we know where some of those divisions are — regional lines. 

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