The 'Roe Effect'
Abortion today results in fewer Democratic voters 18 years from now.

Society, July/August 2005

Roe v. Wade is a study in unanticipated consequences. By establishing a constitutional right to abortion, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court no doubt thought they were settling the issue for good, accelerating a process of liberalization that was already under way in 1973. But instead of consensus, the result was polarization. The issue of abortion soon after, and for the first time, took a prominent place in national political campaigns. By 1980, both major political parties had adopted extreme positions--Republicans favoring a "pro-life" constitutional amendment to ban abortion, and Democrats opposing virtually all regulation on "pro-choice" grounds. Every presidential and vice-presidential nominee since then has toed the party line on abortion.

Polarization over abortion coincided with a period of Republican ascendancy. Since the parties split on abortion, the GOP has won five of seven presidential elections, and no Democrat has had a majority of the popular vote. Republicans took over the Senate in 1980, and both houses of Congress in 1994. Obviously, many other factors have contributed to Republican success, but it is hard to look at these results and conclude that abortion has been a winning issue for the Democrats. Thus, the politics of abortion has favored the party that opposes the court-imposed "consensus."

This is not to say that America has embraced the near-absolutist pro-life position that the Republican Party formally endorses. Most Americans are moderate or ambivalent on abortion, rejecting the extreme positions on either side. One reason Republicans have an advantage is that as long as Roe remains in effect--taking off the table any restriction that imposes an "undue burden" on a woman seeking to abort her pregnancy--Republicans are an extreme antiabortion party, only in theory. When it comes to actual legislation, the GOP favors only modest--and popular--regulations. The Democrats, on the other hand, must defend such unpopular practices as partial-birth abortion, taxpayer-subsidized abortion, and abortions for 13-year-olds without their parents' knowledge.

Compounding the GOP advantage is what I call the "Roe Effect." It is a statement of fact, not a moral judgment, to observe that every pregnancy aborted today results in one fewer eligible voter 18 years from now. More than 40 million legal abortions have occurred in the United States since 1973, and these are not randomly distributed across the population. Black women, for example, have a higher abortion ratio (percentage of pregnancies aborted) than Hispanic women, whose abortion ratio in turn is higher than that of non-Hispanic whites. Since blacks vote Democratic in far greater proportions than Hispanics, and whites are more Republican than Hispanics or blacks, ethnic disparities in abortion ratios would be sufficient to give the GOP a significant boost--surely enough to account for George W. Bush's razor-thin Florida victory in 2000.

The Roe Effect, however, refers specifically to the nexus between the practice of abortion and the politics of abortion. It seems self-evident that pro-choice women are more likely to have abortions than pro-life ones, and common sense suggests that children tend to gravitate toward their parents' values. This would seem to ensure that Americans born after Roe v. Wade have a greater propensity to vote for the pro-life party--that is, Republican--than they otherwise would have.

The Roe Effect would have made itself felt before post-Roe children even reached voting age. Children, after all, are counted in the population figures that determine states' representation in Congress and the electoral college. Thus, if the greater prevalence of abortion post-Roe affected statewide fertility patterns, the results would have begun showing up after the 1980 reapportionment--in the 1982 election for Congress, and the 1984 election for president.

The first post-Roe babies reached voting age in 1991, in time for the 1992 election. In 1992 the Roe Effect would have been minimal, since it was limited to a small segment of the electorate (18- and 19-year-olds), who tend not to vote. The affected segment of the population grows with each election, ranging up to 23-year-olds in 1996, 27-year-olds in 2000, and 31-year-olds in 2004. The Roe Effect is compounded over generations. Children who are never born do not have children or grandchildren.

Critics of the Roe-Effect hypothesis point out that abortion does not necessarily diminish a woman's lifetime fertility. A woman may, for example, have an abortion while in college, but later marry and bear children--children she might not have had, had she been forced to carry her collegiate pregnancy to term. Yet it is not clear how much this might mitigate the Roe Effect. Some women do abort their final pregnancy, and delayed childbearing is one manifestation of the Roe Effect. If a woman has a child at, say, age 30 rather than 20, one additional census passes before the child counts toward his state's congressional and electoral college apportionment, and two or three presidential elections pass before he reaches voting age. The compounding element applies here as well; if a woman has a daughter at 30 rather than 20, the daughter reaches childbearing age a decade later than she otherwise would have. Moreover, attitudes about abortion and politics are subject to change with age and experience, and usually in a conservative direction. Thus, some women who delay childbearing contribute to the Roe Effect on both ends: by having abortions when they are young, single, and pro-choice, and by bearing children when they are older, married, and pro-life.

Has the Roe Effect borne itself out in practice? The results are mixed. In terms of reapportionment, the trend is decidedly in favor of Republican states. The 30 states George W. Bush carried in 2000 had 271 electoral votes, a bare majority. Reapportionment after the 2000 census increased that number to 278. In the 1980s, they were worth only 267 electoral votes, not enough for a majority; in the 1970s, 260. The trend continues: of the 10 fastest-growing states in 2003-2004, Bush carried nine in 2004. (One of them, New Mexico, went for Al Gore four years earlier.)

But Roe-Effect doubters can point to 2004 exit-poll results that found 18- to 29-year-old voters--i.e., those born after 1975, who correspond closely with the post-Roe generation--were the only age cohort that supported Kerry over Bush, by 54 percent to 45 percent. Yet caution is in order in interpreting these results. The Roe Effect does not predict that younger voters will be more apt to vote Republican than older ones, only than they otherwise would be. Putting the Roe Effect to a real test will require a longitudinal look at these voters. How will their voting pattern change, as they grow older and more settled? In any given year, the youngest age cohort will include a high proportion of lower-income and never-married voters, both traits that are highly correlated with voting Democratic. Marriage, in particular, tends to correspond with conservative attitudes on abortion and other social issues, and therefore with voting Republican. According to 2004 exit polls, Bush outpolled Kerry among married voters, 57 percent to 42 percent, while Kerry beat Bush among singletons, 58 percent to 40 percent.

Peculiarities of the 2004 campaign might also have maximized Kerry's performance among young voters. The Democratic get-out-the-vote effort placed heavy emphasis on the youth vote, employing pop-cultural icons and exploiting the fear of a military draft. The strong youth vote for Kerry may prove to have been less a trend than a spike.

While the Roe Effect may give Republicans an advantage, it obviously is insufficient to win elections. National security and the economy still loom larger than abortion in most voters' minds. And although no Democratic candidate since 1976 has won a popular-vote majority, pro-choice candidates collectively (including Ross Perot and Ralph Nader) did so in the three elections from 1992 to 2000. Further, the Roe Effect does not necessarily mean that younger voters will end up conservative on cultural issues other than abortion. Opinion polls consistently show, for example, that the young are far more favorable toward same-sex marriage than their elders. This should not be surprising. Even if their parents tend to be conservative, they grew up in a society far more accepting of homosexuality than the one in which earlier generations came of age.

And if Republicans keep winning the presidency and appointing Supreme Court justices, Roe v. Wade may eventually be overturned. (This almost certainly would have happened in 1992, if the Senate had approved Robert Bork's confirmation five years earlier.) If Roe goes by the boards, one would expect fertility to increase in states that outlawed abortion, which would presumably be largely conservative and Republican ones. If the Roe Effect continues to operate, though, it would make those states more Democratic and liberal, since women who otherwise might get abortions would no longer have the option in their home states. But in the end, that may not matter. If Roe were overturned, the politics of abortion would change dramatically, and in the Democrats' favor. With the legality of abortion itself on the line, the debate would shift away from the pro-choice extremes, forcing pro-choice politicians to take a more centrist (and popular) position. Republicans would be torn between their antiabortion base and more moderate voters, for whom an outright ban on abortion is a bridge too far.

The best solution for both parties would likely be a return to the status quo ante Roe--that is, for Congress and the president to largely ignore abortion, and leave its regulation to the state legislatures. This would allow politicians, Democrat and Republican alike, to tailor their views to match those of their constituents and their own consciences, and it would remove abortion as a polarizing issue from national elections. Thus, one might say that both Roe and the Roe Effect contain the seeds of their own demise.

Next article: Kerry's Quagmire (The American Spectator, 7-8/05)

Previous article: C Man in the Navy (6/8/05)

Go to main list