The recent passage of pro-life legislation in both Texas and North Carolina has generated plenty of media coverage on state-level pro-life efforts. In the past month, a number of news outlets have commissioned polls on abortion attitudes. Many of these polls confirm what pro-lifers have known for a long time. Specifically, incremental pro-life measures — including banning abortion after 20 weeks of gestation — enjoy the support of at least a plurality of Americans.
However, this week Pew Research Center released an informative poll that breaks down abortion attitudes by geographic region. Unsurprisingly, it finds that areas in the South and Midwest are more supportive of pro-life laws than the rest of the country. Specifically, 52 percent of those who live in the South Central region and 47 percent of those who live in the Midwest feel abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. The national figure is only 40 percent in this poll.
The Pew survey also finds that the regional gap in public opinion has widened over time. The percentage of southerners and Midwesterners who feel that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases has increased by around 5 points since the mid 1990s. However, during the same timespan, the percentage of New Englanders who feel abortion should be illegal in all or most cases actually declined by a similar margin.
This geographic polarization has important implications for the pro-life movement. Since the 1990s, Republicans have won majority control of both chambers of the state legislature in nearly every southern state. The political success of Republicans coupled with the strong pro-life sentiment in the South has resulted in many southern states taking the lead in promoting laws that offer even greater protection to the unborn — currently, all southern states are enforcing both a parental-involvement law and an informed-consent law.
However, pro-lifers should also remember that state abortion policy was not always neatly divided by ideological or geographic lines. For instance, during the 1980s the first group of states to enact pro-life parental-involvement laws included such liberal bastions as Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. As such, the increasing polarization on sanctity-of-life issues – both political and geographical – poses both a challenge and an opportunity to the pro-life movement.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan–Dearborn, a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New