Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI and the author of The End of White Christian America, says that for evangelicals and other culturally conservative Americans, abortion has become a crucial symbol of attitudes toward the larger demographic, cultural, and even economic changes reshaping the nation.
In PRRI polling, Americans who oppose abortion expressed much more negative views on a broad array of social changes than those who support legal access, according to a new analysis it conducted at my request. Looking back at its 2016 Annual Values Survey, the group found that abortion opponents and supporters provided mirror-image responses to a core question: whether “American culture and way of life” has changed mostly for the better or for the worse since the 1950s. Two-thirds of abortion opponents picked worse, while two-thirds of supporters picked better. Similarly, while 60 percent of abortion opponents said the growing ranks of immigrants “threaten American customs and values,” a matching 60 percent of abortion supporters said having more immigrants “strengthens American society.” Women who opposed abortion were as likely as male opponents to express conservative views on those other social changes.
Jones says these results reinforce an insight from the sociologist Kristin Luker, who posited back in the 1980s that abortion had become a proxy for reactions to cultural change overall, particularly the evolving family dynamics between women and men.
“I was surprised at how strong the correlations were, and how consistent they were,” Jones says, referring to the results in the PRRI analysis. “The pro-life, pro-choice fight is about this real sea change in the way motherhood, family structure, and gender roles are shifting. I think, harkening back to Luker’s argument … that for many conservative women, abortion rights is more than just the issue—it’s a threat to a very particular gender role and valuing motherhood. It’s a much bigger thing.”
Penny Young Nance, the president and CEO of the socially conservative Concerned Women for America, dismissed the idea that women living in states that have passed new limits on abortion will rebel against them. Instead, she said, the laws represent a backlash to measures liberalizing abortion access in more Democratic-leaning states.
“From our point of view, this general movement toward life is not a GOP strategy at all, but the reasonable reaction of the grassroots to the abortion extremism we saw in places like New York and Virginia,” she said in an email. “Young conservative women of all races are driving these conversations. We do not fit the old molds and we will not be silent. Both parties would be wise to engage us. They ignore us at their own risk.”
The Alabama law prohibiting abortion even in cases of rape and incest pushes the boundaries even among the most culturally conservative voters. Citing PRRI’s polling, Jones says that no more than about a quarter of any major demographic group—including southern evangelical women—support banning abortion in all cases. But the reality that most culturally conservative voters who oppose abortion also recoil from so many other social changes makes it difficult for political professionals in both parties to imagine that many of them will shift to voting Democratic—even if they consider the new laws too extreme. The web of issues connecting southern white women to the GOP, Ayres notes, is dense.