Why have pro-life states opposed COVID restrictions—while pro-choice states have not?
When Texas decided this month to ban abortions after six weeks of gestation, it became one of the nation’s most restrictive states on abortion and one of the least restrictive on COVID-19 or guns. Meanwhile, several states with the most stringent policies on guns or COVID (states such as California, New York, and Massachusetts) were also the most strongly pro-choice. Why have states that advocate restrictions on abortion in the name of saving lives not been willing to similarly restrict individual liberty when it comes to guns, COVID, highway safety, or any other measure? And why have states that favor life-saving governmental interventions in all of these other areas been uniformly resistant to restrictions on abortion?
One way to answer this is to look at two states: Texas and Massachusetts. Politically, the two states could hardly be more different. Texas has long led the nation in executions; Massachusetts, by contrast, abolished the death penalty in 1984. Texas prides itself on its open-carry laws. Massachusetts has one of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, the lowest rate of gun ownership, and the second-lowest rate of gun deaths. When it comes to healthcare, Texas is one of a handful of conservative states that refused the Medicaid expansion offered by the Obama administration as a way to broaden health insurance for the poor; Massachusetts adopted universal health insurance in 2006, three years before Obamacare. Even on issues of highway safety, the two states differ markedly. Drivers who travel on Texas 130 out of Austin can legally cruise along at eighty-five miles per hour, but in Massachusetts, no rural road has a speed limit higher than fifty-five miles per hour. In Massachusetts, all motorcycle riders are required to wear a helmet, but in Texas, riders over the age of twenty-one don’t have to. And on COVID, Texas ended all restrictions in early March, becoming one of the first states in the country to do so, while Massachusetts still required indoor mask-wearing in mid-May, even after the CDC suggested it was no longer necessary.
One might assume that Massachusetts, with its tradition of state regulation to protect human life, would support antiabortion legislation. And indeed, this was once the case. In January 1973, when Roe v. Wade was issued, Massachusetts was one of thirty-three states that still banned nearly all abortions, and it had a legislature that was no more than eleven percent pro-choice. The state’s leading liberal Democratic senator, Ted Kennedy, supported the pro-life cause, declaring that the nation needed to “fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.”
One might expect that Texas, with its libertarian individualism and suspicion of state regulation, would have found the pro-choice position appealing. In fact, there was a time when many conservative Texans did support making abortion legally available. Although most abortion was illegal in Texas before Roe v. Wade, even the state’s devout Southern Baptists wanted to change that. In April 1969, the Texas Baptist Standard found that ninety percent of readers thought their state’s abortion law too restrictive. In the 1970s, the state’s two US senators, including Republican John Tower, likewise supported abortion rights. Texas continued to be represented in the US Senate by pro-choice Republicans throughout the twentieth century, with Kay Bailey Hutchison elected in 1993 on a platform that included an endorsement of Roe v. Wade.
So what changed? Why did Massachusetts reverse its stance on abortion without changing its views on any other life-saving intervention by the state? Why did Texas become a center of antiabortion legislation without becoming amenable to any other proposal to save lives through state regulation? The answers have to do with both religion and the changing demographics of abortion.
In the early 1970s, Massachusetts was, along with Rhode Island, the most Catholic state in the nation; fifty percent of its residents were Catholic. At the time about sixty percent of Catholics nationwide went to church every week, and devotion to church doctrine, including its teaching on abortion, remained strong—which was why the state legislature was so strongly antiabortion.
Over the course of the late twentieth century, northeastern Catholics quit going to church very regularly, while a younger generation of liberal Protestants decided to abandon Christianity altogether. Today, only twenty-two percent of Massachusetts residents attend church weekly, and that group is disproportionately elderly. A majority of Massachusetts residents under thirty never attend church. Because of their views of sexuality and women’s rights, most of the unchurched have adopted a position on abortion that is far removed from the traditional Catholic view.
At the same time, they continue to uphold another principle that both Catholic and liberal Protestant churches proclaimed: the value of human equality and concern for the poor. That is why, as abortion became predominantly associated with racial minorities and the poor (seventy-five percent of American women obtaining abortions in the second decade of the twenty-first century were poor or low-income), northeastern liberals became more strongly committed not only to defending abortion rights but to funding the procedure in the name of equality and for the sake of the poor. When Ted Kennedy switched his position on abortion in 1975, he advocated not only protecting its legality but funding it through Medicaid, so that poor women would have equal access. His pro-life vision had always been closely tied to the liberal communal vision of a strong social welfare state. His pro-choice vision was as well.
In Texas, by contrast, the values of libertarian evangelical individualism predominated. If a matter was not sinful per se, it should never be regulated. It was not a sin to ride a motorcycle without a helmet while going eighty-five miles per hour on a country highway and packing a side pistol, so the state shouldn’t prohibit it. But individual sins, especially when committed by the “wrong” sorts of people, were punished with impunity—as the state’s unusually high execution rate showed. When white evangelical churches began preaching against abortion, and when abortion became more strongly associated with racial minorities and the poor, Texas conservatives decided that abortion needed to be regulated. But lacking a broader social welfare vision, they saw no need to couple their new interest in restricting abortion with any larger effort to protect human life. If the state’s citizens wanted to take off their masks in public gatherings during the pandemic or bring guns into churches and classrooms, the state was not going to stop them. Nor was the state interested in expanding health insurance for the poor, even if it would save lives.
The minority of Catholics and Protestants who retain both a high view of unborn life and a belief in the state’s obligation to defend all human life (even at the expense of individual liberties) can no longer find support for their views in any state. For them, the sight of “pro-lifers” refusing to wear masks because of convictions about individual liberty—while “pro-choice” advocates are willing to forego individual choice in order to save lives—is a reminder of the inconsistent vision on both sides of our political divide.
Daniel K. Williams is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of several books on religion and American politics, including God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right and The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship.