Survey Shows Regional Divide On Abortion

A new survey about American attitudes toward abortion turns up strong regional differences in opinion. And the divide seems to be growing. Renee Montagne talks to Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, about the survey.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

American attitudes towards abortion reflects strong regional differences in opinion, and a new poll shows that divide seems to be growing. For more on what Americans have to say about abortion, we're joined now by Michael Dimock. He's the director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which conducted the survey. Good morning.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, your survey points out that overall public attitudes about illegal abortion have stayed pretty much the same for the past two decades. But in one region - Alabama and Texas and Oklahoma - in that region, opposition to legal abortion has actually increased. How do you explain that?

DIMOCK: Well, you know, there are a lot of factors associated with abortion attitudes; religion being one of the biggest ones. But some other characteristics and demographics also come into play. I think what you're seeing is some policy debates that have cast the issue in different dimensions - talking about the specific timing or the safety at clinics and so forth - that may be able to take people who are personally torn over the issue of abortion, and cast it in ways that show approaches to limiting it that may fit with their conflicting views.

MONTAGNE: Now, you do cite a real difference though, for example, in South Carolina where back in the mid-'90s a Washington Post/ABC poll found 52 percent of the people thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Now, the number there is down to 40 percent. What accounts for that drop?

DIMOCK: Well, I think that, you know, people are hearing a lot about this issue. Most Americans we know have this conflicted view. They see abortion as a moral issue. It's something that they think at least be avoided, if not prevented. But they also see it through the lens of women's rights, through the lens of individual choice. And what we find is relatively few Americans are sort of in the black-and-white area on abortion. Most of them are somewhere in the middle.

And I think what you're seeing in some regions is, as the issue is argued and redefined through the lens of specific bills, people in some areas shifting toward making it illegal because they see opportunities to do so that fit with their views.

MONTAGNE: Well, yeah. I wonder if state laws are tracking public opinion. I mean, you have Texas, the latest of 13 states - mostly Southern and Midwestern - to ban abortions after the 22nd week. And in those states, almost half of residents believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. Are the laws following opinion or are the laws influencing opinion?

DIMOCK: That's an excellent question and I, you know, you would think that the laws are following opinion - and I think that's true to a large extent. But I also think that there's a way in which the reverse can be true, again, which is that, you know, many people are conflicted over the issue. When they hear of an option that's presented to them like restricting abortions after 20 weeks or raising the standards at clinics, we find that many of those specific restrictions sound a lot more appealing to people than a more general ban on abortions; that they can sort of fit those restrictions into the way they look at the issue, and feel comfortable that that's a reasonable restriction.

So, it may be that many of the people in states that are really having that intense argument over these kinds of policies that that argument in and of itself is affecting the way the way they look at the issue.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, when you do a survey like this what you hoping to illuminate?

DIMOCK: Well, you know, abortion is one of the longest standing conflicts in American social policy. And one of the things that's been fascinating to us about it is it hasn't really changed that much over time. I mean, there are very few broad social issues about race or homosexuality or immigration. All of those have changed and evolved over the last two decades. This issue remains really largely where it was 20, even 40 years ago.

So trying to understand the dynamic or, in a way, the lack of dynamic behind that is really interesting to us. And partly - as the survey found - that even though there are stases nationwide, you can see big changes in subgroups.

MONTAGNE: Michael Dimock is director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Thanks very much.

DIMOCK: Oh, thank you.

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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