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The Growing Regional Divide in America's Abortion Debate

A new poll shows the South Central states are more opposed to abortion than ever.


For the last two decades, public opinion on abortion in the United States has largely split down the middle, with just slightly more than half of all Americans who say they believe it should be legal in all or most cases. But new data quantifies a very different kind of divide in the abortion debate, highlighting a growing regional gulf in opinion across American states.

A poll released Monday from the Pew Research Center reveals just how large this split has become. While 75 percent of New England residents say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a full 52 percent of residents of South Central states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas) say just the opposite. The survey, which was conducted this July among 1,480 adults, found that 54 percent of American adults support abortion nationwide.

Pew compared its new poll to historical ones to show just how sharp the regional divide has become. Today, there is a 35-point spread in support for abortion between the regions with the highest and lowest rates of pro-choice opinion. This split has nearly doubled since a 1995 Washington Post/ABC news poll, which found an 18-point divide in public opinion regarding abortion between New England and the South central region. Even more tellingly, this emerging division is a result of growing opposition in the South. Support for abortion dropped from 52 to 40 percent in these same southern states since the 1995 poll.

I've written extensively over the past year about the changing regional landscape of access to abortion for American women. Today, 13 states have restrictions on abortions after 22 weeks or earlier. Five of these are in the South Central region: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. According to a 2011 study, these and other restrictions have resulted in a sharp inequality in access to abortion providers. Women in nearly nine in 10 American counties (87 percent, whose residents comprise a third of all women of reproductive age) have no access to abortion services. And that was before the most recent round of restrictions, including, most notably, Texas's recent House Bill 2, which will likely force the closure of all but six of the state's abortion providers. 

Unsurprisingly, the poll found that residents of the 13 states with abortion bans have much higher rates of pro-life sentiment in general.

The regional divisions over abortion tracks fairly neatly onto similar splits on other social issues, especially the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Moreover, the expanding regional divide over abortion rights is tied to the deepening fault-lines of religion, politics and class in America. My past research has explored how the geography of abortion opposition and restrictions correlates starkly with variations in income, share of college graduates, religion, and political identification. As I wrote last June:

While the issue of abortion is typically posed in political or moral terms, its geography reflects the stark reality of class in America. Abortion and reproductive health services are more readily available in more affluent, more educated, more knowledge-based states, while women in poorer states with more traditional blue-collar economies face fewer, if any, choices for reproductive health services and must contend with far greater restrictions on their reproductive rights. 

Top image: An anti-abortion protester holds a sign in the Texas State Capitol on July 12. (Mike Stone/Reuters)

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