Are Abortion Politics Still Relevant in America?

Originally posted on Cambridge University Press’s website, Fifteen Eight Four.

If you pay attention to national news, you might be under the impression that the battle over legal abortion is finally winding down.

After all, survey data suggests that the American public doesn’t really see abortion as a pressing political issue and birth control – not abortion – dominated the debate during the mid-term elections.

“Do you think the issue of abortion is a critical issue facing the country, one among many important issues, or not that important compared to other issues?”
2009 2011 2012 2013
A critical issue facing the country 15% 30% 31% 18%
One among many important issues 33% 28% 33% 27%
Not that important compared to other issues 48% 39% 35% 53%
Don’t know/Refused 3% 3% 2% 2%

Data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press/Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Religion & Public Life Survey

“Do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female patients?”
2011 2012 2014
Support 66% 66% 61%
Oppose 24% 26% 32%
Don’t Know/Refused 10% 8% 7%

Data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press/Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Survey

But is abortion politics really off of the political map?

Not by a long shot.

In my book, Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America, I show when (and why) abortion is on the political agenda as well as how interest groups work publicly – and behind the scenes – to influence how we think about the abortion issue.

Let me highlight some of the reasons that the abortion debate no longer seems to be a national issue.

  • The abortion issue is rarely considered newsworthy at the national level. When I spoke to journalists, editors, and executive producers of national news, it quickly became clear that those who decide what we see (and don’t see) think that the abortion issue is an “old” one that doesn’t merit much attention. Not surprisingly, we often see legal abortion discussed relative to a politician’s position on it. Presidential hopeful Scott Walker’s position on abortion, for example, is getting a great deal of press – at least locally and online.      
  • Interest groups wanting to prohibit abortion increasingly focus on state rather than national politics. Many opponents of legal abortion gave up on overturning Roe v. Wade and, instead, spent the last several decades pushing the limits of what constitutes an “undue burden” on women. To their delight, their efforts to restrict abortion access have been quite successful. Proponents of legal abortion are organizationally weak at the local level and rely on the court system to stymie restrictive policies. So far, this strategy has not worked horribly well.
  • The interest groups that want to credibly weigh in on the abortion debate via national media often lack the reputation to do so. I find that the reputation of an interest group matters a lot in terms of its ability to get – and shape – media attention. Groups that have a strong reputation with national media wield their reputational power carefully. This is, in part, because maintaining a strong reputation requires groups to largely avoid rancorous media debates and work behind the political scenes to shape policy debates. The interest groups that are included in media stories during these moments are largely discredited and marginalized in the coverage. Not surprisingly, rather than shape debates these groups provide additional ammunition for opponents to lob at their political enemies.

The battle over legal abortion is ongoing in the United States and there are no signals that an end is in sight. Learn more about abortion politics and how groups use media to affect political change in my book, Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America.

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About Double take Sociology

I am a Professor of Sociology, a Research Associate in the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy, and an Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Community Engagement in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. I research (and write about) social movements, mass media and politics. To find links to my research, visit www.DeanaRohlinger.com.
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