Polarization on abortion in the USA

By Razib Khan | December 9, 2010 2:06 am

Some comments below made me want to look at attitudes toward abortion in the USA by ideology over the decades. I know that political party polarization on social issues has played out mostly over the past 20 years or, but I assumed that this was less evident in ideology (mostly, liberal Republicans became Democrats and conservative Democrats became Republicans). I looked at the ABANY question:

Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtaina legal abortion if:The woman wants it for any reason?

Then I combined years to produce four decades. 1977-1980 = 70s, 1981-1990 = 80s, 1991-2000 = 90s, and 2001-2008 = 00s. I compared this with the POLVIEWS variable, which goes from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. I constrained the sample to whites to control somewhat for population confounds. Below are the results by decade in various formats.




Raw data, % who say “yes” to abortion for any reason:

DecadeExtreme LiberalLiberalSlightly LiberalModerateSlightly ConservativeConservativeExtremely Conservative

As you can see, the gap between extremes went from 30 points in the 70s to 50 points in the 00s.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Data Analysis, Uncategorized
MORE ABOUT: Abortion, Data, GSS, Politics

Comments (16)

  1. So what happened in the 90’s? Just a research blip, or was there a major cultural change? Seems that the ‘middle’ got cold feet….

  2. Odd how all those who are in favour of abortion are alive. Science has a huge role here and yet everyone is ignoring it – human development begins at conception. Abortion therefore remains the deliberate taking of an innocent human life.

  3. Zaziben


    So what? I think it’s immoral to rob a woman of her choice to choose, the decision is hers, and hers alone.

  4. It would be substantially odder if people who weren’t alive were somehow demonstrably “in favor of” abortion.

  5. Sandgroper

    I thought the corollary was that all those against it are dead.

  6. Bobito

    The ” for any reason” bit makes the data interesting, because it takes some of the religious element out of play. Many non-religious people, including myself, are against abortion ” for any reason”.

    The thought of someone having an abortion because they wanted a boy not a girl disgusts me to the point that I will appose anything that make that possible. This is why I supported Bush’s late term abortion ban.

    But if someone tried to pass a law banning abortions all together I would fight it.

    The problem is that there is no way to prove why someone is having an abortion. So, from my perspective, I feel that the first trimester is good dividing line. This allows for health of mother, rape, and incest consideration without any issue.

    I would be interested to see the data on who supports abortion after the first trimester.

  7. Gil

    @6: So should we expect more political allegory in the next season of The Walking Dead? I suppose it makes sense that the zombies would be against abortion: lower food supply.

    As an on-topic aside: The last graph is what really made the polarization pop for me, on the earlier graphs I was more distracted by the small jump in pro choice among the extreme conservatives. Is that a statistical anomoly or is it a libertarian sentiment for keeping the govt out of one’s womb?

  8. i’m curious. never seen an abortion debate on the blog so i’ll let it go for now….

  9. Chris

    I share your views Bobito. I was always on the fence about it, but I never supported late term or partial birth abortions – I feel they’re a disgusting and unethical practice. I not only support abortion during the first trimester under the conditions you listed, but also because the actual development of the heart and nervous system doesn’t typically occur until around 6 weeks. If a baby is aborted shortly after that period, they’re not yet developed into a fully functioning human. I compare it to a person in a vegetative state – they’re physically there and autonomous organ systems are functioning, however the person is not responsive or aware of his/her environment. In most cases like these people opt to pull the plug on life support and let nature take its course. Certainly a gray area, but I feel it’s a valid point.

    How about Dr. Kevorkian? I support assisted suicide for terminally ill patients – we constantly put animals down when they suffer and they don’t even have a choice in the matter – why not let people make their own decisions?

    Most Liberals support abortion by any means and animal euthanasia, yet they don’t like assisted human euthanasia. I don’t really understand that.

  10. ” I constrained the sample to whites to control somewhat for population confounds.”

    I’m not sure that it is appropriate to do that in this context. There has been more of a shift in fertility in non-whites than in whites in the time period in question (e.g. for the first time in more than a century poor women are having fewer children than affluent women), so the interesting data may be there.

  11. A female commenter

    A lot of ignorant men responding here. The problem is that a lot of genetic abnormalities are detected in the second trimester – and other problems with the fetus, even later. Sometimes it is the mother who is at risk. Not many (if any?) ‘late-term abortions’ as you call them (is 12 weeks ‘late-term’? well guess what- you can’t have a CVS until then, or an amniocentesis until at least 15 weeks) happen because the parents dislike the freakin’ gender outcome. Making abortions after the first trimester illegal would put families faced with horrifying decisions in an even worse position than they are in already.

  12. Sandgroper

    @8 – And who’s to say they’re wrong, eh?


    @12 – 100% agree (and I’m male). Except that in Asia there are a lot of ‘late term’ abortions on gender grounds. But that is not reason to legislate against them in the USA, and this is a discussion about the USA, after all – conditions in China and India are irrelevant.

    My personal view is that this is basically the woman’s decision, with partner support/second opinion if required. It is certainly not the decision of the hugely ethically and morally discredited Catholic Church or a bunch of pontificating males or religious hacks who lack the scientific basis to give an informed opinion.

  13. diana

    Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973; the debate doesn’t end. What next? If same-sex marriage is the law of the land (I have my doubts, but if….) will that end the debate on that? No way.

    Regarding abortion, the question isn’t stopping it but regulating it. We’ve always had abortion. Always will. It’s like drinking and boxing. You either have it out in the open or try to outlaw it and drive it underground.

  14. Chris

    @#12: You’re not correct in assuming 12 weeks as “late term”. The general “consensus” is generally anywhere after 20 weeks. Also, we’re not arguing against abortions where the mother’s life is at risk (after the first trimester) or the fetus is not developing properly (although most “defective” pregnancies are aborted on their own, naturally – happened to my mother). I don’t believe a mother should kill her own baby simply because she doesn’t want it. There’s always adoption. We adopt out puppies and kittens, what’s wrong with humans?

    A late-term abortion often refers to an induced abortion procedure that occurs after the 20th week of gestation. However, the exact point when a pregnancy becomes late-term is not clearly defined. Some sources define an abortion after 12 completed weeks’ gestation as “late”. Some sources define an abortion after 16 weeks as “late”. Three articles published in 1998 in the same issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association could not agree on the definition. Two of the JAMA articles chose the 20th week of gestation to be the point where an abortion procedure would be considered late-term. The third JAMA article chose the third trimester, or 27th week of gestation.


  15. I was wondering if you might figure out just what exactly the midterm elections may possibly imply regarding free college scholarships. It appears to be the Republicans will certainly start looking to slash every thing they can cut knowning that almost certainly means awards for college education. I just don’t comprehend just how they feel this nation is ever going to be competitive, if your cost of higher education continues to climb, but grants end up being more challenging to acquire. It’s scary to imagine I am in debt $40,000 or maybe more and not really knowing if I can even get a job after I graduate in this economy.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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