Abortion and Political Realignment
The debate over abortion has been an emotional one for thirty years in America. It is an issue on which partisans have shown little ability or willingness to compromise. When one side considers the procedure murder, and the other a constitutionally protected right, there is no split—the—difference compromise in sight. Certainly, some political realists on the pro—life side of the debate, anticipating that abortion will not be banned outright, have attempted to move the goalposts a little in their direction, by working to ban partial birth abortion or institute parental consent requirements in individual states.
But one aspect of the abortion issue that is rarely addressed is the impact of the legalization of abortion on the country's political demography. By this I mean: what of the absence of the 40 million—plus who were never born since abortion was legalized? Has their non—existence affected the political balance among those who are left among us? Given that Roe V Wade was decided in 1973, only those who would have been born between 1973 and 1986 would now be eligible to vote (in New York State from 1970 to 1986), about 40% of the total number aborted or 15 million eligible voters. Put another way, the absence of those who were aborted, only began showing up in elections after 1991 (1988 in New York state).
One astute observer who has noticed all of this is James Taranto, of the Wall Street Journal's Opinionjournal.com website. He even coined a name for the phenomenon: the Roe Effect. 'If a pregnant woman chooses tomorrow to have an abortion, the result in 2021 will be one fewer eligible voter——and that's a statement of fact, not a moral judgment. If tens of millions of women have abortions over decades, as they have, it will eventually have a significant effect on the voting—age population.'
No—one has reliable data on the number of illegal abortions that were performed on an annual basis before the Roe V Wade decision legalized the procedure. But certainly at most it was a small fraction of the 1.3 million or more average abortions per year since 1973. So the Supreme Court decision certainly resulted in an increase in the annual number of abortions performed in the country.
To assume that abortion has not affected our politics would suggest that if those who were aborted, had instead been born and grown to become adults, that they would have then voted in a similar fashion to the rest of America. I think this is highly unlikely.
Many analysts of the 2000 election have suggested that the greatest split between the parties at the moment is between those who go to church or synagogue regularly, and those who do not. Essentially we have something of a religious/secular schism. Regular churchgoers gave Bush a 20% margin over Gore in the 2000 election. Irregular churchgoers and non—attendees gave Gore a double digit percentage margin over Bush.
Now consider abortion. Is it likely that regular churchgoers had a similar rate of abortion in the last 30 years as irregular churchgoers, and non—attendees? I think this is obviously not the case, though I do not have specific data to prove the point. So too, reported statistics indicate that African Americans, the most reliable Democratic voting constituency, had a higher share of all abortions performed in the last 30 years than their 13% share of the population.
There are many anecdotal stories about huge increases in the number of college students who are religiously active, defying the image of the college student many of us have had since our own days on campus years ago. A recent survey conducted by Harvard University indicated that college students across the country were 10% more likely to have supported the war in Iraq than the general population. Surveys of the youngest voters indicate that the GOP is claiming a much higher percentage of this demographic slice than decades ago.
It seems plausible to me that of the 40 million—plus abortions which have occurred since the early 70s, a disproportionate number of them were likely to have been to women who are politically liberal, rather than politically conservative. In fact, having chosen to have an abortion, might be a critical reason why a woman is committed to defending the 'right to choose', a mainstay of liberal social policy. Of course there are also some Republican women who favor abortion rights, though they do not have the influence or numbers in Republican politics the way pro—choice women do in Democratic Party politics.
Although children have been known to rebel against the values held by their parents, childhood socialization remains a powerful shaper of political values and affiliation. 'Hereditary Democrats' and 'hereditary Republicans' do exist in substantial numbers. But heredity ends as a shaper of politics when abortion replaces birth.
The pro—life side seems to be making progress in reducing the number of abortions annually (that number has dropped by over 200,000 per year in recent years), and the ratio of abortions to live births has dropped below 1 to 3. But it is also likely that those who were born, and not aborted in the last 30 years, may be more inclined to be opposed to abortion today than was the generation that first experienced abortion rights in the 1970s and used them.
For the first time in many decades, self identified Republicans in the population now equal the number of self— identified Democrats. Many political observers have tried to explain this by the Democrats' problematic position on issue X (e.g. national security) or the Republicans' greater appeal on issue Y (e.g. taxes). But this trend became more pronounced in the 1990s, at about the time that the change in the abortion law began influencing the total size of the voting population.
It seems to me that the political pundits and analysts are either missing or deliberately ignoring the issue of abortion and its political impact. I believe that John Judis and Ruy Teixeira are probably wrong that there is an emerging Democratic majority in the country. Accepting of course, that children are not obligated to vote as their parents did, I believe that one of the reasons that the numbers in the two parties have moved into balance, and are now trending Republican is because one side is doing a lot better job of reproducing and creating potential new devotees than the other. Republicans in the Twenty—First Century may find themselves enjoying a victory of the cradle