Not so long ago, laws governing abortion in Massachusetts and Rhode Island were far more restrictive than those in the Deep South, as state legislators throughout New England regularly banned the procedure, no matter the circumstances, during the 1960s and ’70s.
Nowadays, however, the American South represents a hub of anti-abortion fervor, home to a series of laws and regulations that have eroded Roe v. Wade, as liberal states in the Northeast and elsewhere have enacted laws to codify that landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision.
How that regional reversal came to pass touches on demographic and ideological shifts, as well as a political environment in which few governors or state legislators anywhere claim to be moderates on the issue.
More than anything, the switch can be traced to religion, and how Christian faiths have in some cases become as polarized on the issue of abortion as the views of elected officials who rely on votes of the religious faithful.
Q: Why was famously liberal New England so opposed to abortion?
Two words: The pope.
Daniel Williams, author of “God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right” and “Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade,” said that in the early 1970s the strongest opposition to abortion came not from Southern evangelicals but from states with strong Catholic ties in the Northeast.
Even as states like Connecticut and Maine were passing bans, states that were home to large populations of more conservative religious denominations allowed women to safely end pregnancies in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformities and when a woman’s life was at risk.
North Carolina was one of the first states to allow for limited legal access to abortion in 1967. Georgia followed in 1968, and South Carolina and Arkansas in 1970. In Texas, a poll taken in 1970 by the Baptist Standard, the periodical of the Baptist convention, found that 90% of its readers — largely pastors and deacons — believed Texas’ abortion laws were too harsh.
Religious scholars say white evangelical Protestants did not support unfettered abortion rights, but without a strong theology about when human life begins, less restrictive abortion laws were not a moral threat. Evangelicals viewed abortion as a Catholic cause.
“The general view among Southern evangelicals in the 1960s and early 1970s was that abortion was ethically problematic,” said Williams, who serves as a professor of history at the University of West Georgia. “But there was no firm biblical support for the Catholic claim that human life began at conception.”
Q: So, why did the South — and Southern evangelicals — change their minds?
One could say it started offshore: In March 1970, Hawaii became the first state to decriminalize abortion, though the law applied only to state residents. Later that year, New York, then led by a Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller, and a Republican-dominated legislature, went further, allowing women from any state to receive abortion care.
In 1972, some 200,000 women had legal abortions in New York, and 3 of 5 were from out of state. That alarmed many Southerners, who feared that the procedure was being used — and abused — by unmarried women.
“Many of the Baptists in Texas might have thought if a married woman experienced problems with a pregnancy” she should have the option of a safe, legal abortion, said Williams. “They were not envisioning there would be 200,000. This was clearly not a limited procedure in a small number of instances.”
Q: Was it just abortion that worried evangelicals?
Aversion to women’s rights was not limited to reproductive issues: Disaffected by the sexual revolution and the feminist movement, Christian conservative leaders campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment. They also battled to protect the tax-exempt status of racially segregated private schools and pushed to ban gay teachers from public schools and restore classroom prayer.
As opposition to abortion among Catholic voters and lawmakers eased, white evangelicals and fundamentalists grew more strident on the issue. By the late 1970s, white evangelicals had fully embraced the position that legal abortion was an assault on moral values. As biblicists, committed to the text of the Bible, evangelical leaders found new meaning in certain verses they believed gave credence to prenatal life.
“The connection these conservative evangelicals saw was that when Americans drifted away from God in public life, a change in gender roles came in,” said Williams. “Christianity was being replaced by secular, humanistic, sexual ethics, and Roe v. Wade became the symbol for all of that.”
Q: What role did politics play in the shift?
A major one.
While Catholics are fairly dispersed around the country, white evangelicals are heavily concentrated in Southern states, where true believers often also hold elected office, and thus the power to make laws, said Andrew Lewis, associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.
Mary Ziegler, a professor at Florida State University College of Law and author of “Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present,” describes a trifecta that reinforced abortion opposition in the South. “There are a lot of white evangelicals, a lot of Republicans and a lot of gerrymandered swing states,” she said.
The acceleration of state-level abortion restrictions arose from grassroots conservative activists and socially conservative state legislators, not from national Republican Party strategists. “Once the Republican Party took over the South, it did so largely through the efforts of the Christian Coalition” of America, said Williams.
And that connection between white evangelicals and the GOP intensified as the decades passed: By 2009, white evangelicals made up 35% of the Republican Party.
Q: Where does it all stand now?
Nearly 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion, the South is the most fervently anti-abortion region in the country. And year after year, Southern legislatures have outdone one another, passing ever more restrictive measures on abortion care and criminal punishment to those who provide it. For instance, a 99-year prison sentence for doctors who perform abortions in Alabama. A ban on nearly all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy in Mississippi and six weeks in Texas. Rape crisis counselors are subject to lawsuits from private citizens if a woman chooses to end her pregnancy.
Few of these laws have taken effect. Most have been struck down or frozen by the courts and, until last month, the Supreme Court declined to consider many of them. But state legislators, often acting without guidance from national anti-abortion organizations, have continued to introduce anti-abortion bills at a fevered pace. And with the Supreme Court’s rightward shift, many in the movement sense their moment has arrived.
The Democratic Party in the South “generally doesn’t fight” abortion restrictions, Williams said. The party, which counts on the support of Black and Hispanic voters, tends to focus on other priorities, he said. “There is much greater interest in talking about health care and jobs.”
And while many voters, even conservative ones, have shifted to the left on issues like gay rights, Williams said, younger evangelicals are more likely than their parents to oppose abortion.
“The Republican Party has a lot of staying power in Georgia and Alabama and across much of the South for the foreseeable future,” Williams said.KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.
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