rick santorumA new poll has shown the historically polarizing issue of abortion is perhaps becoming even more polarizing. Importantly, it seems that the divide has become primarily drawn around regional lines, joining a host of other issues where steep regional splits have rippled out from the extreme polarization in Congress in recent years.

The poll, released last week by the Pew Center, found that nationally, the numbers of people in favor of or opposed to legal abortion remained, overall, virtually unchanged, but they jumped by several percentage points within regions.

Most striking among the survey’s findings was the gap in opinion between New England and the South Central region – the regions most and least likely to favor legal abortion, respectively. In the former, 75% percent of people were found to support general legal abortion, while in the latter, just 40% said abortion should be legal in most cases.

Interestingly, comparisons with past surveys suggest the regional divide is also widening with time. A 1995-1996 survey by the Washington Post/ABC News found an 18-percentage point gap in opinions favoring legal abortion between New England and South Central regions, while the newest Pew survey found a nearly doubled 35-point gap.

But if you’ve been paying attention, the figures seem natural. The last two years have seen record-breaking numbers of abortion restriction legislation. In 2011, 92 anti-abortion provisions were added to the books, the highest number since the Guttmacher Institute began tracking the information in 1985. The second-highest came the year after, in 2012.

These state-level restrictions, of course, were creative solutions developed in response to a general recognition by anti-abortion activists that nationwide change, in the form of overturning Roe v. Wade, was probably unlikely. So lawmakers and activists switched tactics.. Regulating and harassing abortion out of existence supplanted overturning Roe v. Wade as the goal.

Perhaps the most blatant of these was the “fetal heartbeat” ban passed by North Dakota’s senate, which would have banned abortions as early as six weeks into the pregnancy. In clear violation of Roe v. Wade, a state judge blocked the law from taking effect, but the effort merely marked the furthest extent of the anti-abortion push that also inspired states to pass “fetal pain” laws that banned the procedure after twenty weeks, require anti-abortion counseling and wait periods, and eliminate public funding from Planned Parenthood.

And of course, while all of this was happening, support for access to legal abortions was inching even higher in areas like New England.

What can account for such deepening regional rifts in opinion?

Another study of abortion opinion, published by Gallup in 2010, finds a different but parallel divergence of opinion on the issue. It found, like the recent Pew poll, that Americans’ overall views on abortion have remained fairly stable since 1975. But, rather than studying disparities in opinion through the lens of region, it found that Republicans’ and Democrats’ views on the issue have become increasingly polarized, one roughly counterbalancing the other.

Region and political affiliation have obvious links, and it makes sense that in the era of the Most Polarized Congress Ever, the regions that political leaders represent would also hew to more extreme lines. While abortion opinion has given us just one case study of this effect, it has also been observed with such issues as support for or opposition to same-sex marriage legalization, but with one important exception. While regional disparities in opinion about same-sex marriage persist, all regions are increasing in their support, and decreasing in their opposition, not just diverging more and more within opposing groups.

The fact that legal abortion has just made the regional rift deeper speaks, I think, to the skill that politicians have had in exploiting it for political ends. We are twenty years away from Pat Robertson’s 1992 Republican National Convention speech, when he called for restoring “the greatness of American through moral strength”, which cemented opposition to gay marriage and abortion as part of the Republican platform.

As the next twenty years would show, it was too difficult to sustain opposition to gay marriage, as the sea change in public opinion on the issue would indicate. It may be obvious to point out, but opposition to gay marriage is too politically sticky – when people inevitably become more comfortable being openly gay, and when people inevitably have many more gay acquaintances and friends than they did a decade ago, it also, inevitably, becomes more difficult for those with legislative or legal power to evade accusations of homophobia for openly espousing anti-gay marriage views.

But access to abortion is different. Generally acknowledged to be an unfortunately difficult decision even by the most pro-choice, and not really spoken of frankly for fear of shocking – like most women’s issues – it becomes easier for politicians to use the issue as leverage, to distinguish themselves from, or lob insults at, opponents. Or, as we saw with the scramble to defund Planned Parenthood, it’s an easy issue to connect with something a constituency already hates – like the Republican Party with government spending – and make it even more hated among conservatives.

And those efforts by politicians, with sophisticated strategists and seemingly endless financial backing, have a real impact on public opinion. In this case, it has driven regional opinion in the direction of two increasingly extreme poles.

While others have attributed the correlations between opinion and region to the links between politics and class in America, it might be worth digging a little deeper to understand how the polarization and temper tantrums are leaving an imprint on American public opinion more broadly. At first read, it seems that the extreme party lines of politicians have translated into dramatic regional disparities, and, like so many political and ideological fights, the tug-of-war seems to be fought rather intensely over a group traditionally easy to silence – women.

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Katelyn Fossett is an intern at the Washington Monthly. Find her on Twitter: @katelynfossett