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July 31, 2013 12:40 PM Abortion and Geography

By Ed Kilgore

Both Pew and WaPo have come up with new public opinion research this week on regional variations in opinions about abortion. Using its standard optic of “legal in all or most cases” versus “illegal in all or most cases,” Pew finds the ratio of the former to the latter ranging from a high of 75/20 in New England (CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT) to a low of 40/52 in the South Central states (AL, AR, KY, LA, MS, OK, TN, TX). And comparing these numbers to polling from 1995-96, Pew shows the regional polarization increasing significantly.

Unsurprisingly, both Pew and WaPo surveys indicate that the states which have enacted recent abortion restrictions collectively tilt in the antichoice direction on the basic legal/illegal spectrum (though the heavy demographic hand of high-population Texas may exaggerate that tilt).

I’d observe that the legal/illegal choice in this polling may obscure the high levels of support found in the past for the “health exception” to abortion bans, even in the case of very unpopular late-term abortions. There’s no national polling research available at present (that I am aware of) that really tests the kind of restrictions that radically reduce access to abortions at any stage of pregnancy and for any reason via “health and safety” requirements for providers that few can meet.

In any event, evidence of regional differences on abortion will almost certainly give comfort to those favoring the pre-Roe regime of state control of abortion laws, on the theory that there are really “two countries” on this subject that ought to have the right to their own laws. Whatever they say about this possibility as a tactical matter, antichoicers are not going to be happy with a situation where “baby-killers” can evade bans or restrictions just by traveling. And pro-choicers aren’t going to be happy with state bans or provider restrictions that essentially eliminate any choice at all to low-income women without the means to secure abortion services somewhere else.

As we’ve seen with the latest wave of state legislation on abortion, a “federalist” solution tends to make state politics revolve around this issue to an extraordinary extent, even though the zone of constitutionally permissible restrictions is relatively narrow. If Roe were to be reversed and the states put fully in charge of abortion policy, you’d see culture war as far and wide as the eye can see.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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