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Before Reagan: The Development of Abortion’s Partisan Divide

  • Neil A. O’Brian


What explains the alignment of antiabortion positions within the Republican party? I explore this development among voters, activists, and elites before 1980. By 1970, antiabortion attitudes among ordinary voters correlated with conservative views on a range of noneconomic issues including civil rights, Vietnam, feminism and, by 1972, with Republican presidential vote choice. These attitudes predated the parties taking divergent abortion positions. I argue that because racial conservatives and military hawks entered the Republican coalition before abortion became politically activated, issue overlap among ordinary voters incentivized Republicans to oppose abortion rights once the issue gained salience. Likewise, because proabortion voters generally supported civil rights, once the GOP adopted a Southern strategy, this predisposed pro-choice groups to align with the Democratic party. A core argument is that preexisting public opinion enabled activist leaders to embed the anti (pro) abortion movement in a web of conservative (liberal) causes. A key finding is that the white evangelical laity’s support for conservative abortion policies preceded the political mobilization of evangelical leaders into the pro-life movement. I contend the pro-life movement’s alignment with conservatism and the Republican party was less contingent on elite bargaining, and more rooted in the mass public, than existing scholarship suggests.



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I would like to thank Rob Van Houweling, Gabe Lenz, Eric Schickler, and Joseph Warren for reading and commenting on drafts of this manuscript. I have benefited from helpful discussions on various aspects of abortion politics with Thea Rossi Barron, Terri Bimes, Jim Guth, Richard Doerflinger, Stuart Eizenstat, Elizabeth Herman, Jonathan Ladd, Geoffrey Layman, Connie Marshner, Hans Noel, Justin Phillips, Dan Schlozman, and Laura Stoker. My thanks go to seminar participants at UC Berkeley and the 2019 meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, especially Laura Olson, for their feedback. I also appreciate the very helpful comments from four anonymous reviewers. Finally, support from the Synar Graduate Research Fellowship at UC Berkeley made travel to various archives possible.

*Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at:



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Before Reagan: The Development of Abortion’s Partisan Divide

  • Neil A. O’Brian


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