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A few weeks ago I wrote on something on the data on abortion views for The New York Times. The main reason is because of the sort of commentary which is now percolating through the media in response to some abortion related legislation. In particular, the implicitly liberal media.* As an example of what I mean, Donald Graham in The Atlantic has a piece titled The Republican Party’s Abortion Bind: Female GOP lawmakers withdrew their support for a late-term ban, demonstrating that the leadership is more than just old, white men. Notice the subhead here, the reference to “old, white men” is the trope which is regularly trotted out. But as I showed in my piece above there’s no sex difference on the whole when it comes to abortion, though conservative women are more likely to be pro-life than conservative men. Graham suggests that “female Republican lawmakers…worried that the rape-reporting restriction was too strict, and that the bill would alienate young voters and women from the party.” From other reporting this is the perception of the lawmakers. Graham also makes an allusion to the fact “everyone knows the GOP faces a demographic time bomb, since its voters are older and whiter and more pro-life than the general population, so it’s risky to do anything that might make it harder to win them over.” Yet despite relaying that some Republican lawmakers think the abortion issue alienates younger voters, he acknowledges that that’s not the case, stating that “It’s a surprising and little-known fact that opinions about abortion have barely budged in the American public in the 42 years since Roe.” If there was a major secular age effect then attitudes toward abortion would change over time as older cohorts died.

There has been trend in recent years for liberal commentators to decry the fact that the media relays the opinions of politicians without scrutinizing their factual content. But that’s somewhat selective. Here is a case where a group of Republican lawmakers are expressing opinions based on facts which are simply not true. Either they know they are not true, or they are not aware of the facts. The media should perhaps enlighten them. But they’re not, because as it happens the reality is most of the media is not sympathetic to the pro-life position.

Here are the facts, as told by Gallup (found with something called Google) and the General Social Survey. From Gallup a few years back, Generational Differences on Abortion Narrow: Support for making abortion broadly illegal growing fastest among young adults. The results show a small trend toward millenials being less supportive of abortion rights than previous generations. I wouldn’t make too big of a deal about this, because the differences are often not that great. But, the trend is real. Rather than being monotonic, there is a pro-choice “peak” among late boomers and gen-Xers, with the oldest cohorts being the most pro-life, but the youngest ones being next in line.

CatusWildAutoCluster_htm_m2d838ae4I repeated the analysis using the “ABANY” variable in the GSS, comparing to age cohorts from 1931 onward. What you can see is that the most pro-choice voters were born between 1951 and 1970. There has been a shift back toward more pro-life positions on the part of gen-Xers, and even more among millenials.

So the young do not support abortion rights to a greater extent than the older cohorts, unless you are talking about senior citizens, though soon enough the most pro-choice generations will actually fall into that category. The more interesting question is why some Republicans often bring up these sorts of talking points whenever push comes to shove on social issues which they purportedly support. Even granting the sincerity of the pro-life views of many Republicans, I think the issue is that it’s really not something they want to get into a war over, because it’s not a primary concern for most of the party. They rely on social conservatives, and so faithfully and stridently pay lip service to their concerns, but generally balk at toughing it out when it comes to legislation.

In the end I think Jon Chait is right in his polemic The Big Con. Economic conservatives call the final shots, and get results. Republicans oppose tax increases on “job creators” passionately. When it comes to legislation around abortion a large portion of the party heads for the hills. What set of issues do you think the Republican party would shut the government down over?

* Here I’m not talking about Mother Jones, but more mainstream journals. Though most of their writers do not take strident liberal positions, they are personally social liberals, and this usually shows. What set of issues do you think the Republican party would shut the government down over?

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Abortion 
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abany2One of the weird things that annoys me about American politics is the idea that support for abortion rights is particular in some way to women. This is very common on the Left side of the political spectrum, but strangely for the self-described “reality based community” it has basically no correspondence with reality at the first pass.* All you need to do is look at the General Social Survey, which as a variable “ABANY” which asks respondents if it should be legal for a woman to have an abortion for any reason. The question has been asked every few years since 1977. I limited the data to whites only, and what you can see above is that year to year there is actually a correlation between men and women when it came to a “Yes” response. I was actually surprised by that. The jumps are not total noise, but reflect changes in the Zeitgeist (the rule of thumb is that the populace becomes more pro-choice during Republican presidencies and more pro-life during Democratic ones).

The second plot illustrates that for most of the years since 1977 men have supported abortion on demand at a higher clip than women. It doesn’t prove anything, except that reality is a little more “problematic” than some people who regularly call in to NPR might think (that’s what triggered this post).

* If you look close, there is evidence that a smaller well educated segment of liberal women are particularly intense about abortion rights.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Abortion 
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Fetus at ~12 weeks

I am going to get back to the eugenics debate at some point, but it is hard to motivate myself. This is due to a combination of complacency and sanguinity. Many of those who use eugenics as a “scare word” or are “very concerned about it” don’t really seem to get past generalities when it comes to the present situation (i.e., there is detailed exploration of past atrocities, and some exploration of rather unrealistic scenarios, such as occurred with the “Chinese eugenic” story, but little concrete engagement with realities such as the high abortion rates for positive tests for Down syndrome). In more crass and intellectually vapid discussions liberals and conservatives tend to use eugenics as a term of selectively useful instrumental rhetoric, a bludgeoning instrument only in the mindless screaming discourse.

Meanwhile, we have advances like the whole genome sequencing of second trimester fetuses. This is still basic science, but in genomics basic science is translated really fast to the consumer market. I’m ~90 percent sure my daughter will have a 10 x whole genome sequence by the end of 2014 (I might even get her parents in on the game for a trio). So, submitted for your interest are two papers on first trimester noninvasive screens for Down syndrome due to aneuploidies (and other syndromes). Non-Invasive First Trimester Blood Test Reliably Detects Down’s Syndrome and Other Genetic Fetal Abnormalities:

An Ultrasound in Obstetrics & Gynecology study by Kypros Nicolaides, MD, of the Harris Birthright Research Centre for Fetal Medicine at King’s College London in England, and his colleagues is the first to prospectively demonstrate the feasibility of routine screening for trisomies 21, 18, and 13 by cfDNA testing. Testing done in 1005 pregnancies at 10 weeks had a lower false positive rate and higher sensitivity for fetal trisomy than the combined test done at 12 weeks. Both cfDNA and combined testing detected all trisomies, but the estimated false-positive rates were 0.1% and 3.4%, respectively.

A second Ultrasound in Obstetrics & Gynecology study by the group, which included pregnancies undergoing screening at three UK hospitals between March 2006 and May 2012, found that effective first-trimester screening for Down’s syndrome could be achieved by cfDNA testing contingent on the results of the combined test done at 11 to 13 weeks. The strategy detected 98% of cases, and invasive testing was needed for confirmation in less than 0.5% of cases.

We did CVS. We’d rather not have to in the future. The key is to move positive tests into the first trimester. No matter the reality that most couples who receive a positive result in early second trimester choose to terminate, when it comes to killing a fetus every week counts. You can see what I mean when you look at how abortions are performed as a function of fetal development. Not only that, if you read the source papers you see that the typical woman who receives these sorts of screens is 35-40 years of age, and in that case with the fertility clock ticking every week is of the essence.


  1. Implementation of maternal blood cell-free DNA testing in early screening for aneuploidies.Ultrasound in Obstetrics & Gynecology, 2013; DOI:10.1002/uog.12504
  2. First-trimester contingent screening for trisomy 21 by biomarkers and maternal blood cell-free DNA testing. Ultrasound in Obstetrics & Gynecology, 2013; DOI:10.1002/uog.12511
• Category: Science • Tags: Abortion, Down Syndrome, Eugenics, Health 
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It’s basically impossible to avoid hearing about Todd Akin right now. My Twitter and Facebook feeds are kind of swamped. But it did make me wonder: what percentage of Americans reject abortion in cases of rape and incest? The GSS has a handy variable, ABRAPE, which asks respondents about the possibility of abortion if a woman gets pregnant as a result of rape (let’s stipulate that it’s possible to get pregnant as a result of rape!). I also limited the sample to the year 2000 and later, and non-Hispanic whites (to clear out confounds). Demographic breakdowns below….

Before people start complaining, the scale below goes from 0% to 50%, NOT 0% to 100%!


• Category: Science • Tags: Abortion, Data Analysis, GSS 
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Some comments below made me want to look at attitudes toward abortion in the USA by ideology over the decades. I know that political party polarization on social issues has played out mostly over the past 20 years or, but I assumed that this was less evident in ideology (mostly, liberal Republicans became Democrats and conservative Democrats became Republicans). I looked at the ABANY question:

Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtaina legal abortion if:The woman wants it for any reason?

Then I combined years to produce four decades. 1977-1980 = 70s, 1981-1990 = 80s, 1991-2000 = 90s, and 2001-2008 = 00s. I compared this with the POLVIEWS variable, which goes from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. I constrained the sample to whites to control somewhat for population confounds. Below are the results by decade in various formats.




Raw data, % who say “yes” to abortion for any reason:

Decade Extreme Liberal Liberal Slightly Liberal Moderate Slightly Conservative Conservative Extremely Conservative
1970s 62 49 42 34 36 33 31
1980s 66 56 49 38 38 30 19
1990s 72 66 59 43 40 26 22
2000s 79 69 55 42 36 21 26

As you can see, the gap between extremes went from 30 points in the 70s to 50 points in the 00s.

• Category: Science • Tags: Abortion, Data, Data Analysis, GSS, Politics 
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Poking around the GSS for another reason I stumbled onto something weird. Something which I’d seen hints of, or seen referred to before, but never followed up myself. It seems that support for abortion-on-demand and the death penalty peaked concurrently in the span between 1980-2000. This is evident in two GSS variables, ABANY and CAPPUN, which ask if you support a woman’s right to an abortion for any reason and the death penalty for murder. Additionally, I decided to look at attitudes toward homosexuality using HOMOSEX as a reference as a point of contrast. Unlike abortion or the death penalty attitudes toward homosexuality have been changing in the same direction for the past 30 years. Additionally, the magnitude of the change seems to be much greater than in regards to the other two controversial social issues, and especially abortion, which has exhibited notable stability.

I was particularly interested in differences by religion, so I limited the sample to whites and broke it down by Protestant, Catholic, Jew and None. To reduce sample size volatility I clustered by decade, so that “1970s” is inclusive of every year in the 1970s that the GSS asked the question for that variable.




The only thing I note beyond the concurrency is that the more socially liberal groups, Jews for example, seem to exhibit more fluctuation by decade. Conservatives are conservative in part because they reflect older norms on issues where they are conservative. The issues which defined liberal vs. conservative in the 1960s, for example attitudes toward desegregation, are no longer salient because conservatives how now aligned themselves with liberals (there are other issues where the reverse may be true, especially when it comes to the failure of Great Society. I suspect that many, though not all, 1960s liberals would admit that AFDC as it was implemented before the Clinton era reform was not a success in defeating the culture of poverty). It is also notable that in the 1980s Jews were more pro-death penalty than Catholics or those with no religion. I think this might have to do with the massive urban crime wave which was peaking back then. I remember how much preparation for street crime people went through in the 1980s when visiting New York City. Jewish concentration in large urban centers where violent street crime was common might explain the shift toward the death penalty.

Next, I wanted to compare the relationship of support for death penalty and abortion rights. The columns below indicate those who favor or oppose capital punishment for murder, and the rows indicate support for or opposition to abortion on demand. At the bottom you also see a ratio of those who are pro-choice and pro-life among those who support to the death penalty.

Favor Oppose
Yes 30% 7%
No 51% 12%
Favor Oppose
Yes 31% 6%
No 45% 19%
Favor Oppose
Yes 55% 23%
No 21% 2%
Favor Oppose
Yes 44% 23%
No 28% 6%
(Pro-choice support death penalty)/(Pro-life support death penalty)
Protestant 1
Catholic 1.16
Jew 0.87
None 0.89

So first, it seems that among Roman Catholics being pro-life suggests a small but significant tendency to oppose capital punishment above expectation. The seamless garment isn’t a total illusion, though do note that pro-choice and pro-death penalty Catholics still outnumber anti-death penalty anti-abortion Catholics. The death penalty for murderers is really popular. Among Protestants the two views seem independent, as there wasn’t a correlation in either direction. In contrast, Jews and those with no religion go the other direction as Catholics. Those who are pro-choice are more likely to oppose the death penalty, and those who are pro-life are more likely to support the death penalty. Also, look at the really huge ratio between the proportion of Jews who support the death penalty and abortion rights, over half, and those who oppose both, around 1 in 50!

Note: I limited the data to the year 2000 and after, and there isn’t much of a change in direction, though the magnitude is tweaked a bit.

Addendum: Abortion rates have been dropping since 1990.

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A few years ago the Inductivist found that Protestant & Orthodox countries favored abortion to a greater degree than Roman Catholic ones. He did add though that many of the nations in the former category were nominally in the category (e.g., Sweden) I have always been curious about if Catholicism has any effect on attitudes toward abortion within nations. It is known in the USA that there isn’t much of a difference between Catholics and non-Catholics on this topic, rather, it is conservative Protestants stand out. The World Values Survey has a question which asks if abortion is ever justifiable. I thought it would be interesting to break these data down between Catholics and non-Catholics in various countries.

I look at nations which had large Catholic and non-Catholic populations. Not just non-religious (like France), but with religious identified non-Catholics. For example, the Netherlands has large historical Catholic and Protestant populations. I used WVS waves 3 & 4 and aggregated them together. I looked at WVS 5 separately. So some nations are entered twice. Where there were no Protestants, such as in Bosnia, I used Orthodox Christians. In a few Latin American nations Protestants were distinct from Evangelicals. The former usually includes members of historic immigrant communities with culturally Protestant traditions. Their numbers were small in any case, so I simply substituted Evangelical, which usually refers to relatively recent converts to Pentecostalism.

As you can see, most of the variation is between nations, not within them. In many cases Protestants are more pro-life than Catholics. In nations such as Chile most Protestants are relatively conservative evangelicals, disproportionately from the lower socioeconomic strata. In the Netherlands I suspect it has to do with the conservative Protestant Bible Belt, while most liberal Dutch Reformed have simply become “Nones.”

Protestant/Orthodox Catholic
Great Britan 14.5 38.5
Netherlands 29.9 19.8
USA 23.7 27.8
Canada 33.3 28.9
Australia 21 27.6
Brazil 75.2 65.1
Chile 73.5 61.2
Ghana 65.3 63
Colombia 87.6 72.6
Trinidad 68.2 60.8
Germany 18 17.5
Albania 12.7 25.7
Bosnia 32.9 43.1
Chile 84.8 69.3
Czech Republic 17.8 19.6
South Korea 41.6 40.6
Latvia 25.2 30.6
Netherlands 23.5 18.2
Nigeria 70.2 59.1
Puerto Rico 84.3 77
South Africa 64.2 61.3
Zimbabwe 92.4 88.9
Switzerland 22.1 21.9
Uganda 76.9 74.2
Great Britan 25.2 32.7
Tanzania 87.2 91.5
USA 35 38.2
Venezuela 81 70
Northern Ireland 40.3 62.6
• Category: Science • Tags: Abortion, Religion 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"