Skip to main content

From Personal to Partisan: Abortion, Party, and Religion in the California State Assembly, 1967-1996 (WP-19-18)

David Karol and Chloe Thurston

The parties’ polarization on abortion is a signal development. Yet while the issue has been much discussed, scholars have said less about how it reveals the unstable relationship between legislators' personal backgrounds and their issue positions. The authors argue that the importance of personal cues may wane as links between parties and interest groups develop. They focus on the case of abortion in the California State Assembly—one of the first legislative bodies to deal with the issue in modern times. Drawing from newly collected evidence on legislator and district religion and Assembly voting, the researchers show that divisions on abortion were chiefly religious in the 1960s—with Catholics in both parties opposing reform—but later became highly partisan. This shift was distinct from overall polarization, and not a result of district-level factors or “sorting” of legislators by religion into parties. Instead, growing ties between new movements and parties, feminists for Democrats, and the Christian Right for the Republicans, made party affiliation supplant religion as the leading cue for legislators on abortion, impelling many incumbents to revise their positions. Archival and secondary evidence reveal that activists sent new cues to legislators about the importance of their positions on these issues. Showing how personal characteristics become outweighed by partisan considerations contributes to understanding of party position change and polarization as well as processes of representation and abortion politics.

David Karol, Associate Professor of Government and Politics, University of Maryland

Chloe Thurston, Assistant Professor of Political Science and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

Download PDF