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How abortion became a partisan issue

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Termination of pregnancy has become one of the defining dividing lines in U.S. politics

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, the issue has become one of the defining fault lines in American politics, with Democratic politicians strongly supporting abortion rights and Republican lawmakers lining up in opposition.

In 1973 the lines were blurrier. Republican and Democratic voters were equally likely to say abortion should be legal, while it was easy to find Republican officials who supported abortion rights and Democrats who opposed the procedure. Abortion on demand was legal in four states in the early 1970s, while 14 others allowed it in some circumstances. While the Catholic Church opposed abortion, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination, stated that it should be allowed in many circumstances.

Neither party considered abortion a defining issue.
Nor did voters view the issue along party lines. The General Social Survey opinion poll found in 1977 that 39% of Republicans said abortion should be allowed for any reason, compared to 35% of Democrats.

In a 1983 Senate vote, 34 Republicans and 15 Democrats voted for a proposed constitutional amendment that would have overturned the Roe decision, while 19 Republicans and 31 Democrats voted against it.
Biden was among those who voted against it, even though he had supported the legislation in committee the previous year.

In the years that followed, the dividing lines became more apparent as political candidates found it increasingly necessary to align themselves with activists who were becoming more influential within their parties. For example, Republican George H.W. Bush, an abortion opponent who had previously supported abortion rights, won the presidency in 1988. In 1992 he was defeated by Democrat Bill Clinton, a supporter of abortion rights who had previously opposed it.

However, partisan differences widened in the years that followed.
By the turn of the century, only 31% of Republicans supported abortion on demand, while Democratic support stood at 45%, according to the General Social Survey.

In the current Congress, only one House Democrat and one Senate Democrat voted against legislation that would make abortion legal nationwide under any circumstances. The bill failed in the Senate, but Democrats have said they plan to make it a central issue in the November 2022 elections.

Among Democratic voters, support for unrestricted abortion has jumped from 56% in 2016 to 71% last year, according to the General Social Survey, while Republican support continues to hover around 34%.

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