VIEWPOINT: The Emerging Pro-Choice Majority

Abortion rights, we’re told, are our Great Divider. America is cleaved in two. Fifty unremitting percent on either side. There is no United States of America, only pro and anti choice America.

But what if that’s not true? Or, more precisely, what if that won’t be true for much longer?

The 2012 election has been touted as a watershed moment for the Democratic Party, but it may have been one for the pro-choice cause as well. And it’s not because the would-be rape caucus was defeated or that pro-choice candidates won big, though those help. Rather, it’s that there’s good reasons to believe the coalition Obama has built is not only durable, but also staunchly pro-choice. If that’s true, it could signify the start of a major shift on what had previously been thought to have been a fundamental fault line in American politics.

Let’s start with the exit polling. The 2012 electorate was overwhelmingly pro-choice; 59 percent said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while only 36 percent said the reverse. The critical swing states followed the pattern, with some like Virginia falling to the left of the national average. Exit polls should be taken with a grain of salt, of course, but these numbers undeniably suggest American voters are more pro-choice than previously thought, especially in the states up for grabs in Presidential and Senatorial elections.

These data throw a monkey wrench in the conventional wisdom about abortion rights — namely, that it’s an issue that the GOP could use to make inroads with the new Obama coalition. Young voters, women, African-Americans, and Latinos have average-to-conservative views on choice, we’re told. But many identified as pro-choice in 2012. What gives?

Part of the answer is that the general picture is wrong: these key Democratic groups generally track the national average on abortion or tilt left. Though some polls suggest young voters are likely to support restricting abortion rights, the most systematic evidence suggests Milllenials are as, if not more, likely to support keeping abortion legal in all or most cases as the general population. Ditto with women. While African-Americans used to lean right, the most recent polling suggests a decisive pro-choice shift.

Even Latinos, who generally (though not always) tend to oppose abortion rights, have more complicated views than pundits generally let on. While first and second generation Latino-Americans tend to oppose abortion in most or all cases, third generation and higher Latinos support abortion rights by a 19 point margin. Since the Latino population boom is currently being fueled by birth rather than immigration, the third generation cohort seems likely to grow over time. Not incidentally, Latinos who voted in the 2012 election supported keeping abortion legal by a 2:1 margin (though, for it’s worth, the poll didn’t include Texas).

The best news for pro-choicers, however, is yet to come. As these groups become more solidly Democratic over time, they’re also likely to increasingly support abortion rights. Two political scientists, Thomas Carsey and Geoffrey Layman, measured changes in opinion on abortion from 1980-2000 to see how they were related to party identification. They found that while people with strongly held views on abortion tended to pick their party on those grounds, those who give it lesser priority “solve conflicts between their party affiliations and abortion attitudes by changing their views on the issue.” Democrats who vote Democratic for reasons unrelated to abortion tend to simply become pro-choice by default.

You see where this is going. To the extent that 2012 races were principally about abortion (the defeat of Todd Akin, for example), the pro-choice candidate won. In other elections, stridently pro-choice candidates like President Obama were able to cement support from the key “emerging Democratic majority” demographics on issues like the economy or immigration. The longer those groups vote for Democrats, the more likely they are to become pro-choice.

Viewed in this light, this year’s exit polling on abortion don’t look like a fluke.

It looks like a harbinger.

Now, predictions are always dicey. It’s more than possible that the data is wrong, and tomorrow’s demographic groups are more solidly anti-choice than it seems like today. But it makes sense that a more diverse America would be a more pro-choice one. Though you wouldn’t know it from our recent debate, the debate about abortion is, in a fundamental sense, a debate about tolerance and freedom. It’s the same set of ideas that provided the intellectual framework for a more diverse and tolerant America.

Realistically, large numbers of Americans will always disagree about the ethics of abortion even if the pro-choice majority emerges. In a diverse country, one full of people with different experiences and different moral and religious codes, universal agreement on hard ethical questions is an impossible dream. Political life in a democracy like the United States can do nothing to change this moral pluralism, nor should it. Government in a free society cannot be a tool of moral reeducation.

This insight about the role of government in a liberal society is a powerful arrow in the pro-choice argumentative quiver. Being pro-choice does not, contrary to popular belief, require believing that a fetus is not a person. It could depend, rather, on the basic idea that the government has no business telling its citizens what they can and can’t do on the most personal, difficult ethical questions. Even if someone believes that the fetus is a person, that person can also say the government has no business imposing that (often religiously-inspired) idea on its citizens. Government should not impose any one view of the fetus’ moral status by law for the same reason it cannot prohibit Jewish and Muslim parents from circumcising their children; these are matters of conscience that are not for the state to decide.

This belief — call it the argument from difference — is uniquely well suited for a country with a markedly more diverse population. The rhetoric of diversity and respect for people with different backgrounds and beliefs permeates the American conversation about race, gender and culture; it’s a first language for many young, female, and minority voters. That’s not an accident. The basic moral insight, that government should avoid dictating to its citizens and instead provide them the freedom to live according to their own vision of what’s right, runs through some of the key progressive beliefs held by members of Obama’s coalition. The major demands for civil rights — be it from women, racial minorities, or LGBT Americans — were about demanding that all citizens be equally free to live their lives as they choose.

If this analysis is right, you don’t have believe people match their politics to their parties to see why emerging demographic groups may become even more supportive of reproductive rights in the future. If a shared understanding of freedom as self-determination is, in fact, the thread that binds these seemingly disparate demographic groups into a durable coalition, then the argument for keeping abortion legal is seeded in fertile ground. Now, just because something makes intellectual sense doesn’t mean it’ll happen in the confused world of actual politics. But I know where my money is.