More evidence that opinion on abortion has nothing to do with “life”, but is more about sex, identity, and women’s roles. New research from Pew shows that while support for abortion rights has remained steady nationally, it’s plummeting in the South and Midwest.
Of course, it’s worth noting that in the most “South Central” of South Central states, an attempt to ban abortion outright by passing a personhood amendment lost at the polls. This may be because the law threatens legal access to hormonal contraception, because anti-choicers are prepared to make the false claim that the pill works by “killing” fertilized eggs (it actually works by suppressing ovulation), and also because it could do things like criminalize miscarriage. However, there’s evidence that people tell pollsters they’re against abortion and then at least some of them quietly vote the other way, which is why even South Dakota couldn’t pass an abortion ban at the ballot.
Being against abortion is an identity thing that is inextricable from other identity markers around sex and women’s roles. You can see that on full display in a video like this from Fox News. The general gist of the video is that Those People (urban, northern, racially diverse) are a bunch of perverts with their teachers unions and sex ed for kindergartners, and you, the viewer, are not like Those People and are instead a sexually upright person with “common sense”. This narrative is not disrupted by two salient facts: 1) By their own admission, the “sex ed for kindergartners” thing is not what it sounds like. It is nothing more than naming body parts, telling kids that cats have kittens, and giving them education on how to turn in pedophiles who molest them. But even though they have to admit these are the facts, the narrative about how Those People are a bunch of union-loving pervs is not ruffled at all. 2) There’s no evidence whatsoever that the sexual behavior of Those People vs. the sexual behavior of the Fox News fan is really that different. The idea of “perversion” is abstracted, and more about asserting values like opposition to sex ed and abortion and not about any real differences regarding what people do in bed. It’s pure identity politics, unattached to any real differences.
So this polarization in opinion is not surprising, even if it says nothing about who is having abortions and who is having sex. What makes abortion a perfect thing for identity demagogues to rail on about is that it’s hidden. Women rarely talk about it, so the actual act of having an abortion doesn’t have to disrupt the narratives about how it’s sign that Those People are sexual degenerates whereas Our People are morally and sexually pure. Closing down clinics adds to the illusion, too. By forcing women in your state to go to other states to have abortions, you artificially inflate the abortion rate there while creating the illusion that women from your state don’t have abortions (they do, but it’s not counted because it happened in another state). Make no mistake. This is all about identity construction and not about what people actually do. The only real gap is between the hypocrites and the people whose stated values comport more closely to their lived experiences.
What this means going forward is hard to say. My sense is that the South/Midwest building its identity around being sexual hypocrites and prudes is inherently unstable, because at the end of the day, they’re defining their identity as Americans in opposition to other Americans. Conservatives know this is a problem, which is why they try to marry the pro-choice, sexually relaxed worldview to Europeans instead of Americans, but the fact of the matter is that coastal Americans aren’t really any different in their views on this stuff than, say, the French. That means the identity of being that other kind of American—the more relaxed, less hypocritical kind—is always available to the kids of people who have gone all in on the “we’re not like Those People” identity. This polarization has created a situation where the younger generations can just tip over to the more liberal side of the equation, easy peasy. I think that realization is why, in no small part, anti-choicers are doubling down right now. Trying to get as much “done” as they can before their ability to marshal support starts to seep out from under them.