Corrections and Clarifications: This story has been updated to reflect that polling firm PerryUndem works with clients that include Planned Parenthood and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.
Do conservative women have abortions?
The answer is, obviously, yes. But it's not often we hear from them.
Nearly one in four women in the USA will have an abortion by age 45, according to the American Journal of Public Health, and they don't all share the same values and political views. Cultural stigma can make it difficult for any woman to talk about her abortion, but the particular pressures facing conservative women mean that stigma often equals silence.
"Republicans don't have fewer abortions than Democrats or liberals or anarchists or communists. It's that our political rhetoric paints people who have abortions as largely the same – poor women, young women, irresponsible women, women who hate children," said Amanda Reyes, president of the Yellowhammer Fund, which provides funding for women seeking access to any of Alabama's three abortion clinics. "It's gotten us to a point where we can't see the fact that we're all having abortions, and we're doing it for reasons we personally think matter – and that's all that matters. Pro-life women are having abortions, too."
If you just read the headlines, it would seem Democrats are on one side of the abortion debate and Republicans are on the other. But the issue is more complicated and less partisan than one might think.
Polling shows about a third of Republicans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center, and more than half of Republican women support keeping Roe v. Wade, according to a poll in 2018 from the public opinion research firm PerryUndem, whose clients include Planned Parenthood and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. Nearly 90% of voters say they would support a friend or family member if they had an abortion.
In 2019, four states enacted abortion bans after six weeks of pregnancy, and Alabama passed a law banning abortions except for when the mother's health is at risk.
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"If you look at national polling, this isn't where the American public is, and it frankly isn't even where mainstream Republicans are," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "The harshness of it is pretty shocking."
Lawmakers expect the bans will lead to lawsuits that could push the Supreme Court to consider overturning Roe v. Wade, which recognizes a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.
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The bills have received vocal support from many conservative women.
Alabama's near-total ban "stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God," said Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, who signed the most restrictive abortion law in the nation this month.
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Other conservative women, even abortion opponents, find such laws draconian.
South Carolina state Rep. Nancy Mace is a Republican who is against abortion, but she said she was stunned by the lack of compassion her colleagues showed when they voted to pass a six-week "fetal heartbeat" abortion ban without including exceptions for rape and incest. She introduced an amendment to the bill, and in a pair of 10-minute floor speeches, she cited her personal experience as a rape victim. It was the first time in 25 years she had spoken publicly about her rape at 16, which she said was perpetrated by someone she believed was a friend.
"I was gripping the podium so hard I thought I was going to pull it out of the floor," Mace said. "I was angry at the language my colleagues were using. They were saying rape was the fault of the woman. They called these women baby killers and murderers. That language is so degrading toward women, particularly victims of rape or incest. And I said to myself I'm not going to put up with that bull----. I was nearly yelling into the mic. I gave a very passionate speech to my colleagues, and that is what got the exception through."
Then she was chastised.
State Rep. Josiah Magnuson put a card from Personhood South Carolina, an anti-abortion group, on Mace’s Statehouse desk that read, “It is a twisted logic that would kill the unborn child for the misdeed of the parent.”
Mace said most Republican men at the highest levels are anti-abortion, though they make exceptions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – a state that banned abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected, providing no exceptions for rape and incest – said he supported exceptions. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the same.
"I don't see them being attacked for having the same position," Mace said. "The only difference is I'm a woman, and I'm a victim of rape. And you would think that that would be a legitimate voice in the discussion of abortion in South Carolina and across the U.S."
Not only is it difficult for Republican women to speak about abortion, but it's also become nearly impossible for Republican female politicians to get elected unless they're unequivocally anti-abortion, Walsh said.
"It's become harder and harder for pro-choice Republican women or men to get elected, because in the primaries the most conservative voters are who show up," Walsh said.
In the Senate, there are two Republican women who support abortion rights: Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. In the House, there is none.
Conservative politicians aren't the only ones who struggle with stigma.
Last year, Jenna King-Shepherd hosted a get-together at her home. It was intended as a coming out of sorts. There would be wine and cheese, but the conversation would be anything but light. King-Shepherd decided she would tell the 25 women she invited from her community of Guntersville, Alabama, how she had an abortion at 17.
King-Shepherd hoped to persuade the women to vote no on Amendment 2, which would add language to Alabama's Constitution making it state policy to "recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children, including the right to life."
All the women RSVPed yes. On the day of the gathering, excuses trickled in. One woman said her husband didn't want her to attend. Another said that although she supported what King-Shepherd was doing, she couldn't risk people recognizing her car in the driveway. Of the 25 women who said they'd come, only two showed.
In November, Amendment 2 passed.
"I felt frustrated and defeated," she said. "It feels like an uphill battle that can never be won because you're dealing with culture, and how do you fix that? Because it's systemic. ... I just think it speaks to the stigma here. In the South, it's OK to support abortion, as long as people don't know."
King-Shepherd grew up in Guntersville, which she described as a town with a church on every corner. Her father is a Baptist preacher. Abortion was never discussed in her home. She was conservative, identified as a Republican and said she did all she could to fulfill her family's expectations of a good Southern girl.
Right before she was set to leave for college at the University of Alabama, King-Shepherd learned she was pregnant. She knew she wouldn't have the baby.
"It's really easy to think you believe something until it happens to you, and you really understand the gravity of the situation," she said. "It's easy to say you shouldn't have a choice until you're left without one."
King-Shepherd shared her story publicly for the first time with AL.com in January, and says that although she received supportive messages, she's also been harassed. A direct message on Facebook read, "Keeping your legs closed before college was an option." People told her parents they were "disturbed" by her choice.
Laurie Bertram Roberts also had a conservative, religious upbringing. She was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist church, and when she got pregnant with twins at 16, abortion wasn't on the table. The only option, she said, was to marry the father. So she did.
Roberts had five more children (though she eventually split from her husband) and considered herself anti-abortion until the day she found herself in a Planned Parenthood clinic seeking an abortion. An ultrasound revealed her pregnancy was not viable, and she was told she would miscarry.
"I realized then I'm not actually better or different," she said. "I was sitting in the waiting room with all of these women who were just as scared as me. None of us looked like we wanted to be there. Some looked ready to get it over with. Life brought us to be at this spot, on this day, and it wasn't a value judgment."
Roberts co-founded the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, an organization that helps fund abortion access in Mississippi, primarily serving low-income black women. Mississippi has one abortion clinic.
Roberts said most of the women she takes calls from are religious.
"We're always going to encounter some callers, it doesn't matter what we say, they are going to believe what they did is a sin – that they're murderers," Roberts said. She recalled a woman who "proceeded to tell me why her abortion was different than everybody else's. Folks who are entrenched in their anti-choice views think they are the exception to the rule. Their abortion is a good abortion, and once it's done, they'll go back to shaming other women."
Reyes and Roberts work closely together. Even though they run funds in different states, the dearth of abortion clinics in the South means getting women access often requires coordination.
Both lamented how an issue they see as personal has become so politicized, preventing nuanced conversations about not only how complex abortion can be but also how practical it becomes under certain circumstances, regardless of political or cultural beliefs.
"A lot of people I talk to have never considered or thought they would be the kind of person who would get an abortion," Reyes said. "We explain this is a choice that you're making for you – it's not a political choice."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: When it comes to abortion, conservative women aren't a monolith