The Hill: The future of abortion politics is changing

November 19, 2018
By: Stella Rouse & Janelle Wong

In the 2018 midterm elections, voters in three states – Oregon, Alabama, and West Virginia – decided on controversial ballot measures aimed at restricting abortion. Two passed, in Alabama and Virginia, while voters in Oregon rejected a measure to prohibit public funding for abortion.

White evangelicals are the largest religious group in Alabama and West Virginia, where restrictions on abortion passed with 59 percent and 51 percent of the vote respectively. Oregon, on the other hand, is a top destination for millennials, where restrictions on abortions were rejected with resounding 64 percent of the vote.

The starkly different outcomes in these states hint at a larger pattern that’s emerging in abortion politics. Slowly but surely, millennials are becoming more engaged on abortion politics, perhaps becoming a counterbalance to white evangelicals. And that means the landscape for abortion policy in the United States may also be changing.

Millennials are already more liberal in their leanings than any other generation. Rouse’s recent book (with Ashley Ross), “The Politics of Millennials” shows that more than four in 10 millennials identify as liberal, compared to just over three in 10 older adults. But this generational gap disappears in their views of abortion: 44 percent of both millennials and non-millennials support a woman’s right to an abortion.

However, abortion attitudes among some millennials seem to be evolving. According to an April 2018 poll, approximately one-third of younger millennials, ages 18-29, say their views on abortion have changed in recent years. Almost three times as many young millennials say they have become more supportive of abortion (25 percent) than those that say they have become more opposed (9 percent). And over half of young Democrats (53 percent) in a related September poll say that abortion is a critical issue. 

The trends are different when it comes to the politics of White evangelicals.

Although this group has long been a strong proponent of abortion restrictions, there are signs that the issue is no longer at the heart of the evangelical agenda. While White evangelicals’ have strong feelings about abortion, at least half of this group contends that other issues are just as important. Conservative positions on policies like immigration, climate change, government-sponsored health care, and tax reform are emerging in place of traditional “religious voter” issues. (Non-White evangelicals on the other hand seem to be more left-leaning when it comes to these policies.)

After the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the dominant narrative was that white evangelicals felt confident that he would vote to preserve “the dignity of life.” However, results from the September poll show that only 43 percent of white evangelicals actually believe that Justice Kavanaugh will vote to overturn the constitutional right to abortion. That’s a far cry from the overwhelming enthusiasm we often hear about the religious right.

In contrast, religious groups that lean more Democratic—the religiously unaffiliated and black Protestants — are more convinced that the judge will vote to overturn Roe (more than half of the former and two-thirds of the latter).

These findings indicate that the landscape of the debate over abortion may be shifting. Abortion has declined as an issue of importance among Republicans and has become a more critical issue for Democrats.

Why? In part because white evangelicals have broadened their agenda and abortion is only one of many policy targets for the group. In the short term, we can expect that the victories on the abortion ballot measures in Alabama and West Virginia will embolden White evangelicals to seek for a conservative Supreme Court majority to overturn Roe v. Wade. However, a diffusion of priorities that now includes a greater focus on issues like immigration, climate change, and health care, may mean less energy and effort dedicated to abortion.

At the same time, increased threats to abortion access are bringing about a more concentrated focus on abortion by Democrats and leading to evolving opinions of millennials on this issue. This newfound interest may counter the long-standing efforts of Republicans and white evangelicals, with potential ramifications for state and congressional elections and for redefining the abortion debate in America for generations to come.

Stella Rouse and Janelle Wong are Political Science professors at the University of Maryland and Public Fellows at PRRI, based in Washington, D.C. 

The Hill