The Next Abortion Battles

South Dakota's 2006 abortion battle, it turns out, was just a prelude. While voters rejected an abortion ban there -- designed to challenge Roe v. Wade ...
by | February 15, 2008

South Dakota's 2006 abortion battle, it turns out, was just a prelude. While voters rejected an abortion ban there -- designed to challenge Roe v. Wade -- a handful of states may see similar measures on the ballot this year.

Activists in Colorado and Montana are gathering signatures to place constitutional amendments on the ballot to state that life begins at the moment of fertilization. Similar amendments might go before voters in other states. So how will the politics of abortion play in 2008?

In answering that question, exit poll data from the presidential primaries is helpful. Exit pollsters have been asking Republican primary voters (and, alas, only Republican primary voters) whether abortion should be always legal, mostly legal, mostly illegal or always illegal. You can see the full results below.

The difference between regions stands out more than anything else.

In five states, more than half of Republicans voters want abortion to always or mostly be legal. Every one of those states is in the Northeast.

Of the eight states where 70% or more of Republicans said abortion should always or mostly be illegal, seven are in the South (assuming you consider Oklahoma and Missouri part of the South). The only other state on that list is Utah, where 76% of respondents said abortion should be mostly illegal, but only 11% said it should always be illegal (the Mormon church's official position is that abortion is only permissible in limited circumstances).

This might seem obvious. Of course the South is pro-life and the Northeast is pro-choice. But since we're only talking about Republicans (and the small number of independents and Democrats that voted in Republican primaries), the stark regional differences surprised me a bit.

What these numbers show is that the difference between the Northeast and the South isn't simply that the Northeast has fewer Republicans. The Republicans there are actually different. On abortion, G.O.P. state electorates don't remotely resemble one another. In contrast, when I looked at exit polls on immigration earlier this week, Republican state electorates didn't vary nearly as much.

The Western and Midwestern states for which I have data fall somewhere in between. And remember those are the states that generally allow citizen initiatives. That's critical because the states where life-at-fertilization measures would be most likely to meet voter approval are ones where the measures first require legislative approval, which is always tricky. In Georgia, for example, the bill has stalled.

In prognosticating about these proposals, it's worth noting that they take a very different approach from what South Dakota tried two years ago. The South Dakota proposal ran into trouble because the debate, to a large extent, ended up being about exceptions.

The ban would have allowed abortion only in cases where the mother's life was at risk, but not in instances of rape, incest or to preserve the mother's health. Voters seemed to think that was too narrow. As you can see from the exit poll data, most Republicans don't want a complete ban on abortion, just as very few want abortion to be legal in all cases.

What's interesting about the life-at-fertilization proposals is that they avoid the discussion of exceptions (at least explicitly). They don't even mention abortion. That said, the proposals seem to address more than just abortion, calling into question the legality of the morning-after pill and stem cell research.

As a result, there's a good chance that voters in most states will also regard life-at-fertilization measures as too broad. Of course, it only takes one state to create a new challenge to Roe v. Wade. 

State (Rs only)       Always Legal   Mostly Legal  Mostly Illegal  Always Illegal

Alabama 6% 14% 45% 32% Arizona 12% 26% 40% 18% Arkansas 5% 13% 42% 37% California 15% 28% 33% 20% Connecticut 20% 30% 33% 14% Florida 14% 30% 35% 18% Georgia 9% 24% 41% 24% Illinois 10% 24% 39% 25% Louisiana 7% 15% 37% 38% Maryland 13% 30% 37% 18% Massachusetts 20% 37% 28% 13% Michigan 9% 26% 36% 26% Missouri 6% 17% 43% 32% New Hampshire 20% 32% 30% 15% New Jersey 20% 33% 29% 17% New York 22% 29% 32% 14% Oklahoma 5% 15% 48% 30% South Carolina 9% 19% 43% 28% Tennessee 6% 15% 44% 32% Utah 3% 9% 76% 11% Virginia 9% 25% 38% 25%

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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