It’s typical in progressive circles to assume that abortion politics is heavily driven by gender, reflecting the left’s conviction that the legality of abortion is fundamentally a question of women’s rights and bodily autonomy.
Polls, however, tend to show only very modest gender gaps in views of abortion. Women and men in the United States and elsewhere generally hold similar opinions — even as Democrats and Republicans offer drastically different ones.
This is particularly striking because gender-based opinion gaps are a widespread feature of politics both worldwide and in the US specifically. American women are far more likely to approve of the expansion of government programs than men, for example. Abortion just doesn’t happen to be one of the issues that display a notably large gender gap.
Men and women have similar views on abortion
In 2015, Vox and PerryUndem partnered on a polling project that tried to capture the full nuance of America’s views on abortion. One of the things it showed is that Americans do not understand broad ideological terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” in rigid ways or even necessarily see them as mutually exclusive.
It also showed that men and women are equally likely to describe themselves as pro-choice, while women are slightly more likely than men to describe themselves as pro-life.
Other polling that asks different questions reached broadly similar conclusions. In Gallup’s time-series data, women are modestly more likely to say abortion should be legal under all circumstances but also slightly more likely to say abortion should never be legal.
And this is not a quirk of American politics. Pew has a big international comparison showing how many people say abortion should be legal “in all or most cases” across countries. It finds very large gender gaps in a handful of countries like Armenia and Portugal, but the much more common situation is for women to be friendlier to legal abortion but only very slightly so.
There is some indication that this may be different at an elite level. It’s striking, for example, that both of the Republican senators who nominally support abortion rights are women. But this also could be a coincidence (Lisa Murkowski’s career has been very idiosyncratic) and may be better explained by the fact that Alaska and Maine have a demographically unusual combination of a very high white working-class population share and low church attendance.
Be that as it may, the relative lack of gender gap on abortion is especially striking because much bigger gender gaps are a regular aspect of American politics.
Men and women disagree more about other things
Pew’s polling, for example, shows a long-term gap between men and women on the basic question of whether the government should provide more public services — a gap that has been growing in recent years.
Even before this Trump-era widening of disagreement about the desirability of a larger and more activist government, this was a bigger gender gap than was registered for abortion-related questions.
Similarly, according to Augusta University’s Mary-Kate Lizotte, an expert in the gender gap in political behavior, “attitudes about military force exhibit a gender gap of 8 to 12 percentage points on average, with women less supportive of military interventions such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
In a practical sense, women’s more left-wing views on economic policy and national security issues mean that women are substantially more likely to vote for Democratic Party politicians. And as elected officials tend toward more extreme views on abortion than the general public, this means that in practice, women’s political participation has a big impact on the legal status of abortion. But this is not driven by any particularly large disagreement between men and women on abortion policy itself.