Looking over their latest survey data on abortion, the Pew fact-mongers headline a growing “north-south divide,” with New Englanders becoming more pro-choice and Southerners from Kentucky to Texas becoming more pro-life. But that’s not the whole story.
It’s true that since the mid-90s, New England has become even more pro-choice than the country’s most pro-choice region used to be. Specifically, the gap between New Englanders who think all or most abortions should be legal and those who think all or most should be illegal increased by 11 points. That, I’d say, is the result of the diminution of Catholicism in the region, thanks in no small measure to the sexual abuse scandal of 2002-03.
Likewise, those in the South Central region went from supporting legal abortion 52-45 to opposing it 52-40, a swing of 19 points. (Like the most of the rest of the country, the coastal South has not changed its views on abortion at all.)
The missing part of the story is the 13-point swing in the (non-Great Lakes portion of the) Midwest, from supporting abortion 55-42 to being equally divided 47-47. The only other significant shift has been a modest drift of the Mountain West towards the pro-choice pole, likely reflecting the in-migration of Californians.
What we’ve got, then, is a reinforcement of what Utah State historian and religious demographer Phil Barlow likes to call the Bible Suspender, which extends in a swath up the west bank of the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico to the Dakotas. Meanwhile, the Bible Belt is shortening on its eastern end, thanks to increasingly diverse populations in northern Virginia, metropolitan Atlanta, and Florida.
The Bible Suspender is where anti-abortion and Republican Party identity have most closely merged. (To paraphrase the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, its name is red.) What Pew’s abortion numbers show is that the Suspender, not the Belt, is America’s most conservative religious section.