Marking Four Decades of Abortion Politics
Like every year since 1974, pro-life demonstrators participated in this week's March for Life in Washington, D.C. to protest the Supreme Court's decision. Organizers hope that the march brings focus to the issue of abortion, but they are often dismayed by event coverage. This year, pro-life activists were particularly upset with coverage by CBS, which posted a slideshow that initially only featured images of those protesting the March for Life. CBS has since changed the content so that it now includes photos of pro-life participants.
The backlash over coverage highlights the contentiousness that surrounds abortion nearly four decades after Roe v. Wade. The country has seen significant changes in abortion politics over the past four decades, and today slightly more Americans lean in a more pro-life direction.
At the time of Roe, few Americans had given much thought to abortion as a political issue, candidates rarely mentioned it, and political parties did not consider putting an abortion plank in their platforms. It was not until 1984 that the Republican and Democratic parties took clear opposing positions on abortion. Today, however, nearly all Democratic members of Congress vote in favor of pro-choice legislation and nearly all GOP candidates are consistently pro-life on abortion. Republican and Democratic parties often use the issue as an ideological litmus test.
Prior to the Roe decision, abortion was mostly absent from public political discussion. Though states were loosening abortion regulations, the issue was so far off the national radar that there is almost no polling on it before 1972. Since then, abortion has been included in perhaps more polls than any other policy of the last four decades.
The issue is now settled within each political party. All of the major Republican candidates—including the most libertarian—took a pro-life position. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in fact, moved even more to the right on the issue a week before the Iowa caucuses. He no longer favored exemptions for rape or incest, a position advocated by Iowa's eventual winner former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Unlike other issues where public opinion fluctuates greatly in response to policy changes or current events, opinion on abortion moves like a glacier, not a tsunami.
In research with colleagues Ken Mulligan and Daniel Bennett, we aggregated nearly 1,000 surveys suggesting that the movement on abortion is subtle—the country never moves suddenly between pro-life to pro-choice.
Immediately after the Roe decision, there was a movement towards a pro-choice majority. Over the next 15 years, however, there was a slow shift towards a pro-life direction.
Two key developments took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s that impacted both policy and public opinion toward abortion. In 1989, the Supreme Court allowed states to impose some restrictions on abortion and in 1993, it changed its interpretation of Roe. As a result, states were now allowed to impose more restrictions on abortion, such as a parental notification requirement. The public reacted by moving in favor of pro-choice opinions.
Opinion shifted in 1995 when it became potentially permissible for a ban on some types of abortion. In 1995, Congress approved a so-called partial birth abortion ban that was vetoed by President Clinton. The ban was eventually enacted in 2003. States began enacting their own bans, along with other restrictions on abortion, as public opinion shifted towards a more pro-life direction.
While movement is small, opinion polls show the most pro-life public since Roe while state legislatures enacted a record number of abortion laws last year.