When it comes to abortion restrictions, geography matters

July 30, 2013
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-FortWorth, sits at her desk after the Texas Senate passes an abortion bill, Friday, July 12, 2013, in Austin, Texas. The bill, signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry (R), requires doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, only allows abortions in surgical centers, dictates when abortion pills are taken and bans abortions after 20 weeks. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-FortWorth, sits at her desk after the Texas Senate passes an abortion bill, Friday, July 12, 2013, in Austin, Texas. The bill, signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry (R), sets stringent new rules on abortion. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

As the push to impose new abortion restrictions gains momentum across the country, it's worth keeping this key fact in mind: geography matters.

Both polling and moves by legislatures across the country have made it clear that sharp regional differences, as well as partisan ones, help determine which states are rewriting their abortion laws and which ones aren't. While Americans consistently support keeping abortion legal in all or most cases, these numbers change significantly depending on the state. And the partisan divide is even wider, which makes a major difference when one party controls the governorship and the legislature.

Twenty-two states have adopted abortion restrictions this year, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, which tracks the issue: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin and Utah.

Americans living these states split about evenly on abortion's legality, with 46 percent saying it should be legal in all or most cases and 50 percent saying it should be illegal in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week. By contrast, over six in 10 in states with no new restrictions said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats in the poll said abortion should be legal in all or most cases (65 percent), while 58 percent of Republicans said it should be illegal.

Mirroring the Post-ABC data, in all but four of the states with new restrictions -- Maryland, Montana, Pennsylvania and Virginia -- support for abortion in all or most cases was below 50 percent in a 2007 large-scale survey by the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The list also includes four of the five states where abortion support was lowest in the Pew Forum poll: Mississippi, Utah, Arkansas and Louisiana.

A Pew Research Center poll released Monday also found a growing regional divide on the issue. While overall attitudes in the United States remained largely unchanged, with 54 percent of all Americans saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 40 percent saying it should be illegal in all or most cases, those living in New England and the South have widely varying views on the issue, and they've grown further apart.

Pew Research surveys since 2012 find opposition to legal abortion is highest in the South Central region -- 52 percent there say it should be illegal in all or most cases. This region is also the only area of the country where opposition has risen significantly since Post-ABC polls in the mid-1990s, when 45 percent said abortion should generally be illegal. By contrast, New England continues to rank as the region where support for legal abortion remains highest -- 75 percent in surveys since 2012 and 70 percent in 1995-96.

And in North Carolina -- where Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed a sweeping bill Monday limiting abortion access -- a majority of the voters who put him in office think abortion should be illegal.

Overall, North Carolina voters are slightly less supportive of abortion rights than the rest of the country, but most still think it should be legal in most or all cases. The network exit poll last fall found 53 percent saying abortion should be “legal in all cases” or “legal in most cases,” compared with 40 percent who took the opposite view. About twice as many said it should  be "legal in all cases” than “illegal in all cases,” 25 vs. 13 percent. Nationally, a larger share of voters, 59 percent, said abortion should generally be legal.

Fifty-six percent of McCrory’s supporters, by contrast, said in that same poll abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.

This partisan divide was evident In an April Elon University poll as well, where 42 percent of North Carolinians said the state’s laws should make access to abortion more strict; 37 percent said they should be less strict and 9 percent about the same. Republicans, who control all branches of government in the state, supported stricter abortion laws by more than 3 to 1.

Clement is a survey research analyst with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. 

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