EXPLANATION | How abortion caused division in American politics

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide, the issue has become one of the defining rifts in American politics, with Democratic politicians strongly supporting abortion rights and Republican lawmakers in opposition.

In 1973 the lines were blurred. Republican and Democratic voters were equally likely to believe that abortion should be legal, while it was easy to find Republican officials who supported abortion rights and Democrats who opposed the procedure.

So what has changed?

Not a partisan issue at first

Abortion on demand was legal in four states in the early 1970s, while 14 others allowed it under certain circumstances.

While the Catholic Church was against abortion, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination, said it should be allowed in many circumstances.

Neither side viewed abortion as a defining issue.

Republicans like First Lady Betty Ford said Roe’s decision was “a great, great decision,” while some Democrats, such as a newly elected senator named Joe Biden, said the court’s ruling “went too far.”

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Voters also did not see the issue along partisan lines. The General Social Survey poll in 1977 found that 39% of Republicans said abortion should be allowed for any reason, compared to 35% of Democrats.

A conservative movement is gaining momentum

In the years that followed, conservative activists such as Phyllis Schlafly seized upon the issue as a threat to traditional values ​​and engaged evangelical churches, which had shown a new interest in politics after a series of court decisions restricting prayer in public institutions.

These groups portrayed abortion as a threat to family structure, along with broader social developments such as gay rights, rising divorce rates and women working outside the home. For pastors and parishioners, abortion became a proxy issue for concerns about a liberalizing society, said Mary Ziegler, a legal historian at the University of California-Davis.

“For a lot of evangelicals, this was more about family and women and sex,” she said.

In 1980, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution against abortion, reversing its previous position.

Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory that same year gave abortion opponents a powerful ally in the White House. At the same time, women’s rights activists gained influence within the Democratic Party and forced leaders to support abortion rights.

But support for Roe still didn’t follow party lines.

In a 1983 Senate vote, 34 Republicans and 15 Democrats voted in favor of a proposed constitutional amendment that would have overturned the Roe decision, while 19 Republicans and 31 Democrats voted against.

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Biden was among those who voted no, even though he had supported the legislation in committee the year before.

Politicians and voters weigh in

In the years that followed, the dividing lines became clearer as political candidates increasingly found it necessary to align themselves with activists who became increasingly influential within their parties.

Republican George HW Bush, an abortion opponent who previously supported abortion rights, won the presidency in 1988. In 1992, he was defeated by Democrat Bill Clinton, an abortion rights advocate who had previously opposed abortion.


Protesters rally against abortion issue in Texas.

According to OpenSecrets, which keeps track of money in politics, abortion rights organizations have donated $32 million to Democrats and $3 million to Republican candidates who want to keep abortion legal since 1989. Anti-abortion groups gave $14 million to Republicans and just $372,000 to Democrats during that period.

Voters were slower to sort themselves out. As late as 1991, 45% of Democrats and 41% of Republicans said they supported abortion for any reason, according to the General Social Survey.

Disagreements between parties, however, intensified in subsequent years, as the issue became a staple of fundraising calls for TV attacks and mass rallies of interest groups. By the turn of the century, only 31% of Republicans supported abortion on demand, while Democratic support remained stable at 45%, according to the General Social Survey.

Both sides dig in

Other polls have consistently shown that most Americans support some restrictions on abortion, but oppose an outright ban.

At the same time, Democrats have become more absolute in their support for abortion rights.

Biden, who has supported a ban on federal funding for most abortions in the Medicaid program for the poor for most of his political career, reversed his stance when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

In current Congress, only one House Democrat and one Senate Democrat voted against legislation that would make abortion legal across the country under all circumstances. The bill failed in the Senate, but Democrats have said they plan to make it a focal point in the November 2022 election.

According to the General Social Survey, support for unrestricted abortion among Democratic voters has risen from 56% in 2016 to 71% last year, while Republican support remains hovering around 34%.