Even Religious Americans Favor Abortion Rights Post-Dobbs

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For a stretch from late June until mid-August of last year, South Carolina residents were banned from seeking abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The state supreme court stepped in with a ruling that said the 2021 ban ran afoul of the state constitution, and, since then, abortion has been legal in South Carolina until 22 weeks of pregnancy. But dozens of state lawmakers have since signed onto a bill that would make people who get abortions subject to the death penalty and another that would ban abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy.

From afar, such fervor among conservative politicians to take advantage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that ended a federal guarantee to abortion rights makes sense. South Carolina broke for President Donald Trump’s unsuccessful re-election bid by almost 12 percentage points in 2020 and 4-in-10 voters described themselves as white born-again or evangelical Christians. The state has loud and rowdy pockets of deeply conservative and religious individuals, and its politics reflects that tradition.

And yet.

Support for abortion rights in the Palmetto State has remained roughly level in a post-Dobbs world. In 2018, 47% of residents said abortion should be legal in most or all cases; last year, that number held at 50%, according to data released Thursday from the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-partisan think tank. In fact, only 11% of South Carolinians said last year that abortion should be illegal in all cases, down from the 18% who said so in 2018.

The point? Lawmakers and policy wonks on the right have been frantically looking at ways to tighten access to abortion services since Dobbs was handed down in June of last year. The decision set in motion a state-by-state scramble to define what rights Americans have to terminate their pregnancies. But, for most Americans, those efforts fall well outside of their stated preferences on reproductive rights. While 13 states now have complete abortion bans, most Americans actually support legal abortions and oppose the fall of Roe v. Wade. Roughly two-thirds of all Americans say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, up from 55% who agreed with that statement in 2010 to 65% last year, according to PRRI surveys of tens of thousands of people. Researchers spoke with almost 23,000 people in all 50 states between March and December of last year to update its annual American Values Atlas, a definitive quantitative dataset that explains this country’s faith communities. Opposition to legal abortion in most or all cases has shrunk from 42% in 2010 to 34% now, and total bans have seen their support dip from 15% in 2010 to 9% now.

And religion, it turns out, is not as predictive as you’d think. For decades, it was widely accepted that Christians were the main driver behind the anti-abortion rights movement, and there were plenty of reasons to posit that. But PRRI’s new survey says white evangelical Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints, and Hispanic Protestants are the lone blocs who don’t have majority support for abortion rights. Even among Catholics, the support for abortion rights tops 60%, including 61% of Hispanic Catholics and 62% of white Catholics. Among Hispanic Catholics, support for abortion in all cases doubled since Dobbs, moving from 16% in March to 31% in December.

Put another way: from a purely political posture, spending time on tightening abortion access at state or federal levels is a losing issue, even for Republicans. The intensity around the issue on all sides of the political spectrum has faded since the immediate shock of the Dobbs decision, especially among Republicans; in September of 2021—pre-Dobbs—21% of Republicans said abortion should be illegal in all cases, dipping to 14% who shared that view last year after Dobbs. Among Republican women, the slice that shared that view changed markedly, too: 20% said in a pre-Dobbs March 2022 that abortion should be illegal, slipping to 15% at the end of the year.

Taken together, it’s clear that faith alone is no longer propping up the opposition to abortion rights in this country. If anything, that stance has gone wobbly at the exact moment abortion rights have become their frailest in 50 years. Conservative politicians—in South Carolina and elsewhere—are chasing an agenda that’s out of step with a majority of their constituents. It pays off with a narrow slice of the electorate, but it may prove troublesome when the broader population is asked its opinion—and that’s the crux of any election where the core question is whether voters think their lives have improved or declined under their current leaders.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com