States Are Diverging on Polarizing Social Issues

Ronald Brownstein

The inclusive comments on homosexuality from Pope Francis this week may crystallize a growing sense that the American politics of abortion and gay rights are moving in opposite directions.

Across the U.S., the two issues’ trajectory has strikingly diverged. Gay marriage has rapidly advanced through Democratic-leaning terrain. Meanwhile, in conservative states, Republican governors and legislatures have approved the most concentrated burst of abortion restrictions since the Supreme Court established the nationwide right to the procedure in 1973. In perfect symmetry, 13 states, almost all strongly Democratic, have legalized same-sex marriage, while 13 reliably Republican states have banned abortion at 22 weeks or earlier.

These changes are unfolding at accelerating speed. Just since 2012, seven states have legalized gay marriage through legislative, court, or ballot actions. Likewise, since the Republicans’ massive state gains during their 2010 landslide, 30 states have enacted some 193 restrictions on abortion, including the 22-week (or less) bans, mandatory ultrasound and counseling requirements, and tough regulations on abortion clinics, according to Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state trends for the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute.

These parallel, but polarized, advances mostly reflect the electorate’s re-sorting. Today, one party controls both the governorship and the legislature in 36 states; that dominance is allowing social liberals and conservatives alike to more easily impose their ideas. Virtually every dependable Republican state (including Indiana, Kansas, and Texas) has restricted abortion in some way since 2010. And gay marriage or civil union has now been approved in 14 of the 18 “blue wall” states that have voted Democratic in at least the past six presidential elections; advocates are hoping to legalize full same-sex marriage in almost all of them by 2016.

Neither side has yet crossed this firebreak: No red state is near authorizing gay marriage, and no Democratic-controlled state has limited abortion rights. Yet on each issue, the changes also reflect shifts in public opinion that could eventually spill over the red-blue divide.

That prospect is most visible on gay marriage. With the millennial generation leading the way, polls show that about half of Americans now support same-sex marriage, up from only one-third a decade ago. Though surveys show support growing among all religious faiths (including Catholics), polls also make clear that the principal reason for the remaining opposition is not the fear that gay marriage would somehow weaken heterosexual families or harm children, but the belief that it violates religious teachings.

That’s where Pope Francis’s remarks could resound. Speaking to reporters, the pope didn’t question the Catholic doctrine that acting on homosexual tendencies is a sin. But he struck a strikingly conciliatory tone when he declared, “If someone is gay, and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” Veteran GOP political strategist Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, says Francis’s words are likely to “reduce the opprobrium [surrounding homosexuality] and make it less of a grave moral transgression in the eyes of orthodox Catholics … [and] over time that could have public-policy consequences.” Whatever the pope’s views on same-sex marriage, his powerful humanizing of gays and lesbians may crack the door for long-term change on the issue in states with large religiously devout populations.

By contrast, abortion seems to be increasingly contested ground. While surveys show just over half of Americans support legal abortion in most cases, that number has dipped slightly since the 1990s. Nor have young people converged around a liberal position. (Given the trend lines, the share of Americans who support same-sex marriage may soon exceed those who support generally legal abortion.) As important, in the Southern and Midwestern states that are imposing the most restrictions, a new Pew Research Center study found that opposition to abortion is rising. Individual policies might still stir a backlash. But generally across the restrictive states, rather than recoiling from the new initiatives, “you are seeing opinion aligning with the policies and moving in the same direction,” notes Michael Dimock, Pew’s director.

Support for abortion rights isn’t waning in blue states, Pew found, but the wave cresting from red America is approaching them anyway. In June, the U.S. House approved a nationwide 20-week abortion ban, with support from nearly all blue-state Republicans; Senate conservatives are now angling for a vote in that chamber.

Such a limit, despite overall support in polls, ultimately might hurt Republicans in the culturally cosmopolitan states central to the Democratic presidential advantage. And the public still shows little appetite for an outright abortion ban. But in contrast to same-sex marriage, where more personal interaction with gays is widening support, conservatives are confident that scientific advances (such as routine mid-pregnancy sonograms) are eroding tolerance for abortion. “Science is a friend to the pro-life movement,” Wehner argues.

So is Francis: In his Brazilian Mass just before his historic comments on gays, he reaffirmed the church’s opposition to abortion. In his contrasting tone on gay marriage and abortion, the pope may be capturing a social debate that is inching toward consensus on one front—and rekindled conflict on the other.