“Thirty-three states have enacted abortion restrictions since , while just 17, plus the District of Columbia, have not. What interested me about those two lists was the degree to which they didn’t align with the share of Roman Catholics in the states. The eight most heavily Catholic states…were among the 17 that had not passed legislation curtailing abortion rights.
Looking at an article in the Washington Post about the frenetic activity in many states since 2010 aimed at enacting abortion restrictions, some in order to set up a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade, the American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson noticed a pattern, which he discussed in a subscription email to readers that I happen to receive.
Thirty-three states have enacted abortion restrictions since , while just 17, plus the District of Columbia, have not.
What interested me about those two lists was the degree to which they didn’t align with the share of Roman Catholics in the states. The eight most heavily Catholic states—in order, Rhode Island (42 percent Catholic), Massachusetts (34 percent), New Jersey (34 percent), New Mexico (34 percent), Connecticut (33 percent), New York (31 percent), California (28 percent) and Illinois (28 percent)—were among the 17 that had not passed legislation curtailing abortion rights. Conversely, the 13 states with the lowest percentage of Catholics—in order, Mississippi (4 percent), Utah (5 percent), West Virginia (6 percent), Tennessee (6 percent), Alabama (7 percent), North Carolina (9 percent), Georgia (9 percent), South Carolina (10 percent), Kentucky (10 percent), Idaho (10 percent) and Virginia (12 percent)—were among the 33 states that have curtailed access to abortions since 2010.
In sum, the relationship between the number of Catholics in a state and the intensity of the state’s anti-abortion policies is completely inverse.
This fact might come as a surprise to people who still think of Catholics as the bedrock core of the right-to-life movement, as they undoubtedly were in the days immediately following Roe.
In fact, Catholic public opinion on abortion policy (as on most political topics) is pretty close to that of the country as a whole, which means marginally pro-choice. Here’s how the Public Religion Research Institute put it in a 2015 survey:
On the issue of abortion, Catholic attitudes generally mirror Americans overall. A majority (53%) of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 43% say it should be illegal. Among Catholics, a slim majority (51%) says abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 45% who say it should be illegal.
A more recent survey from Pew showed Catholics favoring the “legal in all or most cases” position by a slightly slimmer 48/47 margin. Both surveys showed that white Catholics — i.e., those significantly more likely to identify with the anti-abortion Republican Party — were more likely to be pro-choice than overwhelmingly Democratic Latino Catholics.
This is not — repeat, not — to say that there aren’t a lot of passionately active RTL adherents in the U.S. Catholic ranks, who can rely on the consistent support of the hierarchy and the Vatican (and yes, despite some RTL angst about his recent statement that defending the poor was as important as defending the “unborn,” Pope Francis hasn’t given much aid and comfort to pro-choice Catholics).