Pro-Life Supporters and Resistance to the Trump Presidency

One week after the inauguration of Donald Trump as president and days of tumult and resistance to the new presidency, the March for Life was held in Washington, D.C. Around the time of this pro-life event and the Women’s March on Washington right before, many debated whether common ground between these advocates and more liberal ones–such as pro-choice supporters–was possible as an alliance of opposition to Trump.

One example of this kind of rhetoric could be found in an All In with Chris Hayes segment on Friday, January 27th. Charlie Sykes, a conservative political commentator often critical of Trump, and Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist who works for the pro-choice advocacy group Emily’s List, discussed this topic the day of the pro-life march. A few passages from this panel stuck out to me (transcript here; emphasis mine in the quotes).

From Sykes:

  • “By the way, I would also hope that you realize a lot of these people who
    are out there might be campaigning for the right to life, but they’re not
    necessarily going to be all in on this Trump agenda. They’re going to be a
    lot of contradictions. And I think it is worth focusing on the full
    continuum of life.”
  • “So, you know, how many of the people there who are campaigning for the
    right to life are going to be all in, for example, on the ban of refugees
    or on various things that might make health care less pro parent, pro
    family? Those are contradictions that are worth talking about and dealing

And from McIntosh:

  • “A lot of the women marching at the March for Life, like Charlie was saying, I agree completely believe in life across the board. They are pro-immigrant. They are not going to like the fact that if we have a global  gag rule, women who have been raped as a tool of war, will die because they are going to self-induce an abortion.”

These claims, and the related ideas they implied, simultaneously struck me as dubious, interesting, and prime for testing with quantitative survey data. I initially was suspicious because it simply was hard to believe that people could hold both conservative views on a salient issue like abortion and more liberal views on other prominently discussed areas such as immigration and healthcare. At the same time, such a possibility would not be unprecedented.

When I thought about it some more, these statements regarding the political nature of pro-lifers implicitly spoke to an important political science concept: ideological constraint. This idea holds that that positions on one issue constrain those on another, making them interconnected ideologically. (Note: I’m referring more to the within-survey type of constraint between multiple issues, rather than the temporal kind that relates to how consistent an individual’s positions are over time.) The more connected distinct issue positions are (i.e. consistently falling on the liberal or conservative side), the more ideologically unified a person is, attaining the label of an “idealogue.” However, much of political science have found this category of people to exist in small numbers. From Philip Converse in 1964 to Baldassarri and Gelman in 2008, research has indicated that Americans have much more internal ideological conflict than unity. People often hold positions on different issues that fall on disparate parts of the ideological spectrum, making the type of situation discussed here–conservatism on abortion and liberalism on immigration, for example–quite possible.

So, how best to test this claim from this All In segment? Survey data allows for a straightforward examination, as you can see how individuals respond to one question (e.g. immigration) based on how they respond to another (e.g. abortion). The problem here is that large scale, quality datasets that make this possible, such as the American National Election Study that I’ve used often in the past, are only are released around every election year. The 2016 ANES data has not yet come out, and while there is a 2016 ANES Pilot Study, it does not include a question about abortion positions. The next best thing, at the moment, is the 2012 ANES.

Methods and Caveats

Before diving in the 2012 data, I’ll lay out the (obvious) caveats to using this older data to say something about the present day. Given the centrality of immigration and the affected groups–Hispanics, undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and refugees–to the campaign of Donald Trump, there’s a good chance the political climate could have rearranged beliefs on these topics within parties and within ideological camps on abortion rights. The 2012 ANES data, however, remains the best (and publicly) available dataset I can find to address some of the questions and topics at hand. However, using the 2012 data does not seem entirely out of line in some respects. I interpreted the claim made by the All In panelists to be more comprehensive than just a present day characterization of pro-life supporters–as though they have always portrayed these more compassionate values for immigrants and Muslims, such as in 2012, because that is inherent to their life outlook. So in that vein, using 2012 data does not prove as flawed.

Given this caveat, let’s move on to what I can test. Here’s what I summed up from the panelists’ claims:

  1. Pro-lifers aren’t all in on the Trump agenda
  2. Pro-lifers might not support refugee bans
  3. Pro-lifers might not support reducing health care access/might be more favorable to the Affordable Care act
  4. Pro-lifers are pro-immigrant
  5. Pro-lifers believe in life across the board, which implies sympathy for other social groups

Through various questions, the ANES allows to test feelings toward social groups implicated in many of these issues, as well as more policy-related positions concerning the groups. To provide baselines of  comparison, I’ll plot where pro-lifers stand on these various areas in relation to pro-choice advocates, all Republicans, and all Democrats. Comparing pro-lifers to Republicans as a whole lets us see if the former group might be more liberal on some of these dimensions than their home base. Comparing pro-lifer beliefs to those of pro-choice supporters and Democrats speaks to potential for common ground in the event that pro-lifers prove more liberal and closer on some of these measures to those across the aisle.

I’ll also clarify how I code these variables I just mentioned. As always, I group Independents who lean toward a certain party in their respective parties to create a new party identification variable. For abortion, the ANES asks whether respondents favor or oppose the legality of abortion as a matter of a women’s choice. I categorize those who favor this “a great deal,” “moderately,” “a little,” or “lean toward favoring” as pro-choice; the same scale that includes four options exists for opposition, and I group those into a pro-life category. In this sense, I use more expansive definitions for pro-life and pro-choice supporters rather than just focus on the most ardent ones, a condition to bear in mind.


First, I’ll examine how pro-life supporters, pro-choice supporters, Republicans, and Democrats all break out on feeling thermometers toward three groups important to current political climate discussions: Muslims, Hispanics, and “Illegal Immigrants” (note: “undocumented” is the correct wording, but from here on out I’ll use the ANES terminology). I consider these thermometers indicative of the sympathy people feel toward certain groups, and thus they could get at how compassionate pro-lifers are when thinking about these marginalized social groups, which are ever more threatened in this new presidency. They range from 0, the least favorable rating, to 100, the most favorable rating.


The distribution of ratings are consistent across the board: in order, Democrats, pro-choicers, pro-lifers, and Republicans are most sympathetic toward these groups. For Hispanics, the ratings don’t differ too much, specifically among those on opposite sides of the abortion debate. In view toward Muslims, the ratings widen. The average rating Democrats give to Muslims is 46.1, it’s 41.8 among pro-choicers, 34.3 among pro-lifers, and 28.8 among all Republicans. Democrats and pro-choicers are much warmer to this religious group’s members, and especially the former of these two. A similar split appears for feelings toward “illegal immigrants”: Democrats and pro-choicers rate this group 49.6 and 48.6, respectively, on scale of 0-100, while pro-lifers (39) and Republicans (37.8) are much lower. For this group and Muslims, pro-lifers do not express the level of sympathy to where they would find an agreeable viewpoint with Democrats and more importantly with pro-choicers.

At the same, there’s one thing to note regarding ratings of Muslims: pro-lifers and pro-choicers are closer in sentiment here than Democrats and Republicans are. In terms of compassion shown toward Muslims in particular, the two conflicting abortion rights groups don’t stand so far apart as their home partisan camps do.

Another ANES question is relevant to perceptions of Muslims as a way of revealing signs of sympathy toward this group: asking respondents how well the word “violent” describes the religious group. The options that respondents could take vary from what I consider most sympathetic–“not at all”–to least sympathetic–“extremely/very well.”


Given what these answer options signify, there exists a substantial gap in sympathy for Muslims between pro-lifers and pro-choicers. The parties stand very far apart on this measure of feeling toward Muslims, and the groups regarding the question of abortion do too. 27.2 percent of pro-lifers say the word “violent” describes Muslims extremely or very well. It’s not by much, but pro-lifers end up selecting this descriptor for Muslims more than any other descriptor. Only 15.7 percent of pro-choicers, on the other hand, say this about Muslims, very close to the amount that all Democrats do. A similar split emerges on whether “violent” describes Muslims moderately well, as pro-lifers prove much more willing to view Muslims in this way than pro-choicers do. On the other end, pro-choicers rule out this word as describing Muslims more than any other group does, Democrats included: 35.2 percent of pro-choice advocates say “violent” does not describe Muslims at all, while only 20.2 percent of pro-lifers say so. Notably, that percentage of pro-lifers hardly differs from that for Republicans. Thus, by this measure, pro-lifers are not any more sympathetic to Muslims than Republicans as a whole are, while holding very different perceptions than pro-choicers do.

These ratings and metrics focused largely on feelings toward other groups. Next, I’ll measure how this same sentiment is expressed but through more policy-related positions. One example is a question on whether any changes should be made to the amount of immigrants coming into the U.S., ranging from increasing this number a lot to decreasing it a lot. The “increasing” option does not necessarily represent a more liberal position and one more sympathetic to immigrants as a whole. Rather, the value of this question lies on the other end of the response spectrum: if individuals say they want immigration decreased a little or a lot, then it’s clear they harbor some resentment toward immigrants in the U.S.


This measure again reinforces earlier findings: pro-lifers are not especially sympathetic to groups under threat in the age of Trump’s presidency, this regarding immigrants as a whole. On the clearest dimension signifying resentment toward immigrants and immigration–an answer of “decreased a lot” to the above question–more pro-lifers chose this position than among any of the three other groups (though the difference between them and Republicans is not statistically significant). 29.1 percent of pro-lifers say they want immigration decreased a lot, nearly 10 percentage points more than pro-choicers do at 19.6 percent. Similar splits on answers of “left the same as it is now” and “decreased a little” further support this notion of pro-lifers as less supportive of immigrants than pro-choicers and Democrats more broadly.

There’s one more useful question that speaks to sentiment toward immigrants from the ANES: whether immigration levels negatively affect the U.S. job market (they are extremely or very likely to take away jobs from people already in the US) or do not have a negative impact (they are not likely at all to take away jobs).


Once again, the data here suggests pro-lifers are not all that different from their home partisan camp in not displaying much of a relatively pro-immigrant position. 23.9 percent of pro-lifers say recent immigration levels will take away jobs compared to 15.5 percent of pro-choicers who say so (it’s 22.5 percent for Republicans, but that’s not statistically significantly different from the proportion among pro-lifers). Pro-lifers (23.7) also say immigration levels are very likely to take away jobs at a higher rate than pro-choicers do (16.1 percent). On the other end of this spectrum, 21.7 percent of pro-choicers say immigration levels are not at all likely to take away jobs compared to only 12.5 percent of pro-lifers saying so. Pro-lifers are thus more hostile to the potential effect of immigration–and immigrants by extension–on the American job market than pro-choicers are.

Finally, there is one other claim worth testing that come from the All In discussion: that pro-lifers oppose efforts to make health care less accessible and less “pro-parent” and “pro-family.” This gets more difficult to test, even indirectly, with ANES data. The closest I can come to doing so is with the below question about the type of effect the health care law (i.e. the Affordable Care Act) will have on the quality of health care in the U.S. This of course is a bit removed from the idea Sykes expressed, but still relates to the value of health care services on the lives of Americans (especially in the context of the All In panel often referring to pro-lifers’ support for the “full continuum of life”). The options here are whether the law will have improved, worsened, or had no effect on health care services (asked in 2012).


Pro-choicers are much more likely to express a positive outlook on the law’s potential effects, with 50.3 percent selecting the “improved” option. A much smaller amount of pro-lifers at 21.1 percent believe it will have improved health care. Meanwhile, 62.8 percent of pro-lifers say the law intending to expand health care access will have worsened health care services quality, while only 32.4 percent of pro-choicers say so. However, it’s worth also noting that in these “improved” vs. “worsened” response breakdowns, pro-choice and pro-life supporters are less ideologically separated than Democrats and Republicans are–perhaps suggesting at least some common ground.

Again, this ANES data does not make as convincing a case as the previous ones related to views of and feelings toward Muslims and immigrants, but it still generally runs contrary to the claims from the All In discussion–specifically, those that implied pro-lifers might be more sympathetic to broader health care access due to their general support of improving the lives of Americans.

Conclusion and Summary

In sum, the best data available does not support many of the claims from the All In panel about pro-lifers, and throws into question the potential for their common ground with pro-choicers and Democrats in opposition to Trump. Pro-lifers do not view the groups threatened by a Trump presidency–such as Muslims and “illegal immigrants”–particularly favorably, and certainly not as warmly as pro-choicers and Democrats do. In that same vein of showing less sympathy for Muslims, pro-lifers are more likely to view Muslims as “violent” than pro-choicers and Democrats. Pro-lifers are also less sympathetic to immigrants in general, with a desire to decrease immigration and belief that immigrants take away jobs from Americans that are in line with averages for Republicans. Finally, while showing a bit more support of health care services than Republicans as a whole, pro-lifers aren’t close enough to their ideological opposites for common ground on this dimension.

Simply put, in the context of beliefs of their ideological opposites–pro-choicers–and in the context of the average positions of major party adherents, pro-lifers are not any more sympathetic to these groups or ideas under threat from the Trump presidency. At least in regard, and in using 2012 data, that makes them joining those across the aisle in resistance to Trump not likely.

Pro-Life Supporters and Resistance to the Trump Presidency

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