The Gender Gap in the Abortion Debate

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Men are less likely than women to feel driven by the issue, which could have profound implications for upcoming elections.

Protesters gather at the Indiana Statehouse in July.
Credit...Kaiti Sullivan for The New York Times

By Kate Zernike

Kate Zernike is a national reporter covering abortion. She conducted interviews in Mountain Top and Bloomsburg, Pa.

Nov. 7, 2022

Two canvassers walked a cul de sac in a Northeastern Pennsylvania town looking for “persuadables” — independent voters who might be convinced to vote for Democrats — and Erik Brandt, out resurfacing his driveway, offered himself as one.

The conversation turned to how the Republican candidate for governor has vowed to ban abortion without exceptions, and Mr. Brandt, 50, demurred. He finds it easier to talk about gun control, or the economy. “Abortion is not really my — it’s too hard for me,” he said. If he had to pick, he said, “I’m kind of pro-life, with exceptions for rape and things of that nature.”

One of the canvassers, Karen Anselm, shared that when she was pregnant and unmarried at 19, her parents offered to help her get an abortion, but she chose to give birth to her son. “The point is, I had a choice,” she said. “If I’m pro-choice, I can’t force anyone to have an abortion. If I’m pro-life, I am forcing someone to have a child.”

No driveway conversation could capture the debate and emotions around abortion. But this one — and other interviews in this closely contested quadrant of a swing state over the last few weeks — reflects a gender gap seen in polls and voter registration rolls since the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade. While the decision has outraged many women and galvanized them heading into midterm elections, men, even those who support some right to abortion, remain passive by comparison.

The male vote — and any lack of motivation among men — is critical for tight elections, as Democrats have made championing abortion rights a centerpiece of their midterm campaign.

In the five decades that Roe v. Wade guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion, polls showed no significant difference in men’s and women’s views on the issue: A similarly sized majority of each supported legalized abortion, especially in the first trimester.

Now there is an intensity gap. While men and women are still as likely to think abortion should be generally legal, men’s responses suggest that abortion remains for them a relatively remote issue.

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Credit...Michael A. McCoy for The New York Times

The split began to appear as it became clearer that the Supreme Court was likely to overturn Roe. When an AP-NORC poll in June asked an open-ended question about which problems the government should work on in the next year, 21 percent of women offered “abortion.” That was up from 9 percent six months earlier. Just 9 percent of men identified abortion as a critical issue in June, barely changed from 7 percent six months earlier.

In a Pew Research Center poll in mid-October, 63 percent of women said abortion was “very important” to their vote in the midterms, compared with 49 percent of men. An AP-NORC poll conducted soon after the Supreme Court decision found a split in emotions: Women were more likely than men to be “angry” (31 percent) or “sad” (30 percent). Men were more likely to say they were somewhat “indifferent” (28 percent), while just 16 percent of women said the same.

Where men reacted more strongly was in anti-abortion sentiment: They were more likely than women to say they were somewhat “excited” or “proud” about the Supreme Court’s decision.

Polling data showed that Latino and Black men were more likely than white men to support abortion rights. The region of Northeastern Pennsylvania around Mountain Top and Bloomsburg is largely white and rural.

The elections here could have enormous consequences for legal abortion in the state, and not just because of the governor’s race. Presuming they hold their majorities, Republicans in the state legislature plan to put an anti-abortion initiative on the ballot next May — similar to one that was on the ballot in Kansas in August. The race for United States Senate is critical to party control in Washington at a time when Democrats are trying to pass a federal law protecting abortion access, and Republicans, one to restrict it.

Yet in interviews, many men here talked about abortion as an abstraction, finding it difficult to personalize the issue and wavering on the specifics of their own positions.

Back in Mr. Brandt’s driveway, his wife had joined the conversation with the canvassers, having come home from picking up their 15-year-old daughter at volleyball — both mother and daughter support abortion rights. Mr. Brandt allowed some hesitation about declaring himself strictly “pro-life.”

“It’s case by case, you’d have to give me every situation,” he said. That’s probably why it’s been so fiercely debated for 50 years, he added. “We could have 100 years and we’d still be debating it.”

“Well, to debate it and to take it away are two different things,” said his wife, Nicole.

“Yes, but you’ve just given me 30 different circumstances,” he said. “It depends on the circumstances.”

“That’s why it should be a choice,” she replied.

Some men, Mr. Brandt included, said they struggle to define the right time limits for legal abortion, and worry that women use abortion as birth control — sentiments that could suppress engagement on the issue. Several who said they support abortion rights said they do not speak up about it very often because they see it as a matter of women’s rights, and do not want to appear to be speaking for women.

For some men, the court decision on abortion was connected to broader issues in society, and not specifically tied to women’s health.

Few talked about their own role in pregnancy or raising children. Those who seemed most energized to defend abortion rights cast it as part of general worries about the fate of democracy, and about the Supreme Court and gerrymandered legislatures ignoring what a majority of voters say about legalized abortion.

“It’s a big issue for me, simply because they’re trying to take someone’s rights away and tell them what they can and can’t do,” said Art Menichillo, 71, an independent who saw abortion as a proxy for a larger issue. “You can’t just take someone’s rights away, especially after 50 years.”

Ryan Dyas-Gordon, a 31-year-old music producer who lives in Bloomsburg, a university town about 40 miles west of Mountain Top, related his support for abortion rights to his own concerns as a gay man.

“To me, autonomy is probably my No. 1 driving force behind activism,” he said, “allowing people to have autonomy over their own bodies.”

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Credit...Rachel Wisniewski for The New York Times

Bloomsburg is considered a liberal speck in a conservative region. But Mr. Dyas-Gordon, whose mother is a canvasser, said that after the 2016 election, strangers menaced him, even chasing him down the street. Taking away abortion rights, he said, “is not the final step in the trajectory — people want to keep people that are different in their place.”

Action Together, a local political group that has been sponsoring the canvassers, has held rallies about abortion rights, and the crowds are almost all women, said Jessica Brittain, the group’s organizing director. A recent abortion storytelling event at Brewski’s bar, aimed at reducing stigma, also turned out mostly women.

Trying to engage men who support abortion rights on the issue has proved difficult, abortion rights activists said.

At the same bar a week later, three local Protestant pastors, all men, organized a public discussion about abortion as part of a series they call “Theology on Tap.” The pastors, supporters of abortion rights, hoped it would be a chance to discuss the issue without confrontation. But in promoting the event, someone changed the title from “A discussion on the Roe v. Wade Decision” to “Why It Is Important to Have Abortion Access.”

The new title upset some conservative pastors in their local network. The bar’s owner, who is also Bloomsburg’s mayor, got a call saying that abortion abolitionists — those who want a total ban on abortions and criminal penalties for women who seek them — might disrupt the event.

About 35 people attended. The crowd was about half male, and about two-thirds of the attendees opposed abortion rights. They remained peaceful, but the mood was tense. Steve Hummel, the pastor of Trinity Reformed United Church of Christ, who supports abortion rights, talked about his years working as a paramedic responding to pregnant women in emergencies, especially those with ectopic pregnancies or miscarriages where an abortion was necessary to protect the woman’s health.

“I don’t think any of us want to see it lightly taken,” he told the crowd, seated on leather couches and bar stools in the bar’s dimly lit basement. “I personally am not 100 percent for it. My concern is for the exceptions.”

Pastor Hummel, 61, introduced the two speakers, both women and abortion rights supporters: Ms. Brittain, who had worked at Planned Parenthood, talked about how many clinics in the area and statewide had closed. A retired nurse told of women who needed lifesaving care, and families she met who were opposed to abortion until it was their daughter who needed one.

Andrew Horvath, a 39-year-old construction worker who is active in the abolition group, was taking notes. Afterward, he dismissed the presentations as “bleeding-heart stories.”

“The fact is that God makes the rules, God is the author of life,” he said in an interview. “And it is his prerogative when life begins and ends, and it is not up to us, because the definition of murder that I go by is the unjust taking of human life with malice aforethought.”

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Credit...Rachel Wisniewski for The New York Times

As a man, he said, “I know I am not as welcome to that conversation.” But “pregnancy comes about because of a man and a woman. Men are involved, we should have something to say about it.”

Upstairs at the bar later, Darren Inman, 50, said he hadn’t known about the event downstairs. Mr. Inman grew up a Jehovah’s Witness, and considers himself a strong supporter of women’s rights in reaction to what he sees as that religion’s antiquated ideas about women. He doesn’t like the idea of terminating a pregnancy, he said, and he has known women who he thinks have used abortion as birth control.

Still, he said, “I’m very much about, it’s a woman’s choice.”

He described himself as having been stunned and “heartbroken” when he heard about the court’s decision to overturn Roe. It was, he said, “a tragedy for our country, a tragedy for freedom, a tragedy for women’s equality and their rights as human beings.”

Though he supports abortion rights, Mr. Inman said he was not sure what action he could take. The issue will help inform his vote, he said. “I feel a bit helpless,” he added. “I don’t know what I can do to make a difference.”

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