The Magazine

A Moral Majority

From the August 4 / August 11, 2003 issue: Soccer moms are more anti-abortion than you think.

Aug 4, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 45 • By MARK STRICHERZ
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FAYE WATTLETON, former president of Planned Parenthood, announced some "alarming" news in late June. Her organization, the Center for the Advancement of Women, had commissioned Princeton Survey Research Associates to do a major study on contemporary feminism. The result was "Progress and Perils: A New Agenda for Women," a 140-page report on women's views on a range of issues, including abortion. The central finding: Far from wanting abortion as readily available as botox or tattoos (1.3 million abortions took place in 2000), most women oppose the procedure. As Wattleton wrote in the introduction, "There is significant and growing support for severe restrictions on abortion rights."

Of 3,329 women surveyed, 51 percent wanted to ban abortion altogether or to limit it to cases of rape, incest, and where the mother's life is endangered. Another 17 percent said the procedure should be available under stricter limits than now apply. At a time when pro-choice feminists repeatedly invoke the magical three-word phrase "right-wing extremist" to describe President Bush's judicial nominees, the study's results are alarming indeed.

You might think that pro-lifers would be overjoyed by the news. Instead, many have been busy feeling bitter because the press largely ignored the study (only USA Today and the Washington Times ran stories about it). In his syndicated column, L. Brent Bozell III seethed over the "virtual silence" that greeted this report in the "news" media.

But "Progress and Perils" doesn't just confirm that most women are pro-life. It undermines three political myths about women's views on abortion. Indeed, if you read the whole report, the study makes plain that Republicans enjoy an advantage on the abortion issue among women. And if conservatives decide to use it, they may have Faye Wattleton to thank.

The first myth the study exposes is that soccer moms are pro-choice. Ever since Clinton pollster Mark Penn coined the term, the mainstream press has depicted them as such. Fortunately, "Progress and Perils" doesn't take such generalizations for granted. The report classifies women into six groups, based on their attitudes toward women's roles and social status.

On the conservative end are the "traditionalists" and "family first women." In the middle are the "separate-but-equals" and "modern feminists." And on the left are the "movement legacies" and "advocates."

As Harvard political scientist Anna Greenberg has pointed out, "the differences among women voters are far more interesting and important than the differences between men and women."

Of these groups, the separate-but-equals correspond most closely to soccer moms. Largely white, they are the second-most educated group. Almost all of them think a woman can be a good mother and have a successful career simultaneously. They sound like a typical Democratic constituency.

But 42 percent of them would ban abortion altogether or limit it to the hard cases, while another 21 percent would impose some restrictions on the procedure. Thus almost two-thirds of them support, minimally, some form of restriction on abortion. Only 35 percent said they thought abortion should be widely available.

The second myth "Progress and Perils" undermines is that Republicans will lose if they openly oppose abortion. Of the six groups profiled in "Progress and Perils," four heavily favor greater curbs on the procedure. And it's not only the traditionalists (69 percent), most of whom are evangelical, and family-firsts (70 percent), most of whom are working class and live in small towns, who feel this way. So do the separate-but-equals and the center-left modern feminists (67 percent), many of whom are black and Hispanic and poor.

Of course, these figures will vary around the country. As GOP pollster Whit Ayres says, the popularity of a pro-lifer's position "depends on where you are. If you look at the Atlanta suburbs, the Dallas suburbs, the Des Moines suburbs, you get a pro-life majority." And, clearly, pockets of intense pro-choice sentiment can sneak up and bite a candidate: "Look at the Philadelphia suburbs, it was one reason Bush didn't win Pennsylvania." Still, a large majority of women can be described as opposing abortion or entertaining serious doubts about its unchecked availability.

The third myth the study calls into doubt is that most women support Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. This belief was recently conveyed in the Washington Post by David von Drehle in an article about the Supreme Court's decisions on abortion and civil liberties: "Polls consistently show that the majority of Americans have little appetite for reversing the court's path on social issues."

Which polls is von Drehle referring to? It certainly wasn't the poll Wattleton's organization, then called the Center for Gender Equality, took four years ago, which found that 53 percent of women favored outlawing abortion or restricting it to the hard cases--a pre-Roe standard. Nor could von Drehle be referring to the current study, in which 51 percent of women felt the same way.

Of course, even Republican pollsters acknowledge the difficulty of overturning Roe and Doe. As Gene Ulm of Public Opinion Strategies recently pointed out, pro-lifers "have a lot of persuasion left to do." Yet pro-choicers also have their work cut out for them.

"The poll was a big surprise," says CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, who also serves on the board of advisers for Wattleton's organization. In a June 28 story for National Journal, Schneider wrote, "The message [of the study] is clear: For most women today, quality-of-life issues prevail over women's rights. This shift is likely to put liberals at a distinct disadvantage in any fight over a Supreme Court nominee."

Of course, "Progress and Perils" isn't an exact road map for Republicans. It didn't ask respondents about specific abortion curbs, such as parental notification, or whether they support the procedure during the first trimester. Also, the study makes clear that some feminist principles remain popular. A strong majority of respondents say that the women's movement has helped them (60 percent) and that one need not be a mother to live a complete life (72 percent). Neither of those answers, however, is incompatible with pro-life and Republican positions.

Even before this report, the truism that Republican stands on abortion make the party unpopular with women had been undergoing revision, as evidence suggested other GOP positions actually played quite well with women. "Goodbye, Soccer Mom. Hello, Security Mom," Time magazine said on June 2, in an influential cover story that's been echoed in many other campaign stories. One California woman who "used to choose the candidates who were most liberal on abortion and welfare" told the magazine: "Since 9/11, all I want in a president is a person who is strong."

Republicans are listening. Dan Balz recently reported in the Washington Post that Bush advisers are targeting married women in general and security moms specifically. Only it's not true that national security is a strong issue, while abortion is a weak issue for Republicans, and "Progress and Perils" proves it.

A typical CNN story in September 1996 stated that Bob Dole's failure among female voters "is often attributed to Republican efforts to restrict abortion." Such conventional wisdom is mistaken. On abortion, not only are most women not pro-choice, but their position might be described as, well, Republican.

Mark Stricherz is a 2003 Phillips Foundation fellow.