The Politics of Abortion: How the Republican Party Has Taken Advantage of Single-Issue Voters
President Donald Trump recently appointed Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court in an effort to push the court in a more conservative direction and to potentially overturn Roe v. Wade.
President Donald Trump recently appointed Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court in an effort to push the court in a more conservative direction and to potentially overturn Roe v. Wade. The rushed nature of the decision to appoint Barrett suggests that it was simply a ploy for Trump to ensure that he wins the votes of Catholics and social conservatives in the 2020 election. The situation with Barrett is part of a larger trend—over the past few decades, the GOP has been altering its policies to take advantage of religious and conservative Americans. Abortion is a deeply contentious religious issue for many Catholics and evangelical Christians; however, since the late 1970s, abortion has become less of a religious matter in politics and more of a tool for political manipulation. Historically, abortion was never an issue for the GOP, but political trends suggest that in order to garner the support of single-issue voters, the party has adopted a pro-life stance.
At the beginning of the 1970s, the distribution of pro-choice and anti-abortion voters was fairly even across party lines; the Republican Party was not yet the primary “pro-life” party. In fact, the chair of the Republican National Committee in 1974, Mary Louise Smith, was in full support of reproductive rights. However, by 2019, 82 percent of adults who identified with the Democratic Party and only 36 percent of adults who identified with the Republican Party believed abortion should be legal in all cases. This stark discrepancy between the two time periods begs the question of how abortion became a partisan issue in the first place.
In 1972, Republican President Richard Nixon held anti-abortion sentiments at the forefront of his campaign not because of his religious values, but as a political strategy to win the votes of Catholic and socially conservative voters. Nixon did not have strong opinions on abortion—in fact, he was caught on his Oval Office recording device expressing the belief that abortion is necessary in some cases. Nevertheless, Nixon’s pandering to conservative voters proved to be successful, as he won over the majority of Catholic voters (and ultimately the election). The GOP adopted Nixon’s political ploy as a means of gaining more votes from Democratic Catholics and white evangelicals. After Roe v. Wade was passed in 1973 and abortions restrictions began to be struck down, pro-lifers became far more active. The Republican Party quickly saw it could reach out to and win over this emboldened, aggressive, and determined group of voters. Soon after Nixon, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan forged coalitions with evangelical groups who strongly opposed abortion to boost their campaigns. Since then, the GOP continually has attacked reproductive rights in an effort to win the votes of those anti-abortion Catholics.
When it comes to Donald Trump, his use of abortion to gain support is the most problematic of them all. A president who has been caught on tape boasting about sexual assault, who has openly committed adultery, and who has recently used tear-gas to remove peaceful protesters to stage a photo-op with a Bible, still manages to attract a significant number of religious voters. Those voters are nearly always single-issue voters supporting Trump because of his position on abortion. Trump’s tactic of adopting anti-abortion values is clearly successful in distracting these voters from his countless religious shortcomings, which only further encourages the GOP as a whole to continue to take advantage of and cause the formation of single-issue voters.
Ironically, the anti-abortion legislation promised and passed to appeal to pro-lifers is largely ineffective. While a seemingly easy and obvious solution, “banning abortion” doesn’t prevent abortions—it only prevents safe ones. Research has shown that abortion rates in countries where abortion is legal are roughly the same as (or lower than) the abortion rates in countries where it is illegal. If the GOP was truly interested in lowering the abortion rate, it would be implementing more effective solutions, such as widespread access to birth control or improved sex education. The lack of effective solutions suggests that the GOP was never interested in decreasing abortions; rather, it merely wanted to appear interested in order to gain votes.